Thursday, 11 June 2009

Electoral reform: why not follow Ontario's lead?

In recent posts I have supported the idea of taking issues of electoral and wider constitutional reform out of the hands of the party elites and adopting a consultative citizens' convention process to develop reform proposals. As many readers will be aware, this is by no means a brand new idea. It has been tried, successfully, elsewhere.

Back in 2005 the state of Ontario decided that it would reform its electoral system by convening a citizens' assembly. The assembly reported in 2007, after a lengthy consultation process involving many local meetings and individual submissions. It recommended a form of proportional representation for elections to the Ontario state legislature.

Part of the rationale for the citizens' assembly was that this process would take the issue of electoral reform on to relatively neutral ground. If the decision was confined to the political parties, the decision would inevitably be skewed - and would be seen by citizens as being skewed - by calculations of party advantage. By involving citizens directly in a deliberative, consultative process, a reform could be achieved which would represent a genuine popular will, rather than a party fix. And this would enhance the legitimacy of the political system.

Similarly, in the UK at present, its clear that the various proposals for electoral reform floating around largely reflect calculations of party advantage. To say this is not to be 'cynical'. Its just basic poltiical science. So adopting a citizens' convention process is crucial to giving electoral reform integrity and (hence) legitimacy.

However, by doing the right thing, its possible that Labour could in this case also gain some party advantage. If Labour were to come out in favour of a citizens' convention process it would certainly help give the Brown government some of the momentum and sense of mission it is looking to regain.

So, even if you only care about Labour's interests (!), why not follow Ontario's lead?


Sunder Katwala said...


I agree about the value of a citizens convention. There has been strong support in the LibDems and among non-partisan democracy campaigners. There is also growing support in the Labour Party. One example is the campaign for a citizens convention launched by Progress a couple of weeks ago - of which I am among the supporters.

It is a particularly good idea because it deals with several of the 'what now' questions. And it acknowledges that - while some important things (eg the form for an elected Senate) could be settled in the next 6 months, it would be good to set up a longer process for some larger questions (certainly how a written constitution could be codified; and it might be that electoral reform comes in).

But I question (a bit) the idea that reforms are always partisanly motivated. Of course, that is often part of the picture. (Note that the Tories back PR in Scotland and Wales, but not UK-wide). There are also counter-examples: Labour supporting PR in Scotland for national and local government. (It may be no coincidence that civic pressure was part of the picture). And there is a protection against narrow partisan reform in the pledge for a national referendum for any reform proposal to be carried.

But there are a couple of broader points. We disagree (within parties and outside them) about various major political issues, and also about the long-term enlightened self-interest of our parties. For example, Labour contains pluralist and tribalist elements, with very different views on cooperation of any kind with LibDems or Greens.

Finally, the nature of party systems along with the broader political culture is very important to whether and how well an electoral system works. PR can be a very good system in democracies with a high degree of consensus already, and a range of views across a 4 or 5 party system - as in Scandinavia, Germany - and especially one which also enables a choice of governments as a result.

It can be rather a poor system where there is a large uncoalitionable party (eg Austria, where there are almost always Grand Coalitions, which tends to exacerbate the problem of disengagement and then extremism; this is part of the story of pre-1989 Italy with the Communists); while two large extreme or uncoalitionable parties on different sides of the spectrum (which is the French 3rd/4th Republic and Weimar issue) tends to make it unworkable entirely. There is a good democratic case for eg a Presidential system (eg French 5th Republic) where an assembly system is unlikely to sustain effective governments or effective democratic choices in elections.

Newmania said...

New Labour devolved Scotland and Wales to stifle Nationalist votes and save the heartland . It did so at the expense of English rights ( WLQ) and has been standing source if irritation ever since . It will be redressed ,but my point is that New Labour `s attitude to reform has been nothing but partisan . The blatant delaying of the boundary commission for example. These measures between them were supposed to make it virtually impossible for the Conservative Party to ever win.
I fear “Consultation” a word meaning something like “Imposition with fig leaf” due to its consistent misuse especially at local level . The entire discussion is in any case an exercise in political arm wrestling .There is absolutely no line between corruption and any sort of system which diminishes the direct accountability of individuals to Constituencies .There is some purpose to an open Primary recall but basically it is an attempt to piggy back on events for Party advantage and arises only because New Labour are losing .
People do not want Constitutional tinkering . Liberals do and Labour does as it always does when it fears it is sunk . Ask yourselves where the legislature is out of touch with the electorate well I `ll tell you . Criminal Justice , Immigration , Abortion ( to some extent ) Europe obviously Progressive social legislation in general and so on.
You want to make this worse by moving power from people to politicians .The clown show of the Scottish Parliament ought to give you some idea that ther might be something rather good about the system we have . New Labour certainly thought so and so incidentally did Lloyd George until it started working against Liberals

Wayne Smith said...

Ontario's Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform was a magnificent example of democracy in action.

Unfortunately, the referendum that followed was a demonstration of how entrenched elites can stifle positive reform.

The government and the media conspired to make sure that the public got as little useful informtion as possible about the Citizens' Assembly, the nature of the problem and the choices on offer. Party hacks waged a relentless campaign of misinformation and fud.

Not only was the Assembly's final report not distributed to every household in the province, it was actually taken out of print during the referendum campaign. There was no effective voter education campaign.

About a third of the voters had no idea there was a referendum on until they were handed a ballot. (The referendum was held at the same time as a provincial election.) Another third had been convinced that proportional representation was a government plot to take power away from voters and give it to political party elites.

By all means push for a Citizens' Assembly on electoral reform. But make sure that it is backed by a government that actually wants to see it succeed. And make sure that public involvement and education are a key component from day one.

Stuart White said...

Thanks for cautionary note, Wayne.