Over at Liberal Conspiracy, Stuart Weir has an impassioned post arguing that for the government to propose electoral reform in the shape of the AV would be a 'Labour stitch-up'. I am inclined to agree. But aside from the substance of what the government might propose by way of reform, I am struck, like Stuart, by the apparent conservatism of the process by which the government appears to be approaching the whole issue of political reform.
Let's start with AV. As has been widely pointed out, AV is not a proportional system, and so simply does not address the intrinsic unfairness of radical disproportionality between votes and seats. Depending on the distribution of preferences, AV can actually produce even more disproportionate results than the current system.
Compared to PR, I think AV is also likely to put minor, radical parties at a disadvantage. This has its obvious upside: no BNP in parliament. But it has an equally obvious downside: fewer Greens. If, like me, you think the future of progressive politics is Red-Green, you will naturally want an electoral system that allows the latent support for the Greens to come through. I stand to be corrected on this, but my guess is that PR is likely to do this better than AV.
Sunder has proposed a compromise along the lines of AV for the Commons and PR for the second chamber. (Correct me, Sunder, if I am oversimplifying.) But this strikes me as a very unconvincing compromise. Under this proposal, many people would quite reasonably see the second chamber as having more democratic legitimacy than the Commons. What would happen then? Either the second chamber would retain its subordinate status, and many citizens would ask why the more democratic chamber was being overruled by the Commons. There would be a crisis of legitimacy for the Commons. Alternatively, the second chamber would achieve equal status with the Commons. But what, then, if the majorities in the two chambers do not match up? How is the government to be formed?
The compromise of 'AV plus' for the Commons strikes me as more plausible, and preferable to the pure AV proposal. So should Labour put this proposal forward instead?
This brings us back to the second point. Whatever the merits of specific proposals, I think we have reached a point where it is inappropriate for one specific governing party, or even the Westminster elite as a whole, to hold control over the reform process. The process of reform needs itself to address the underlying problem of disconnection and distrust between the political elite and the public. Moreover, if this is a constitutional moment, and we believe in the sovereignty of the people, there is a fundamental matter of principle in seeing that the process of reform is one which gives real, meaningful input to the people.
This is why it is a profound mistake for the Brown government to off into a huddle with a small group of selected advisors and come up with a plan for constitutional reform. That's the mentality of the Treasury technocrat, not the democratic citizen.
For a man who pledged on Monday night to start doing things differently, it is a sign that Gordon Brown still doesn't grasp the huge, qualitative change in his approach to governance that the times demand.
The alternative is for the political elite to let go and bring the people in. The idea of a citizens' convention, as the culmination of a wide and inclusive process of public meetings and consultations, is much preferable as a way forward. The convention would produce a set of proposals which would then be put to Parliament, and to a referendum if Parliament rejected them.
Of course, at the end of the public deliberation, the citizens' convention might come up with a proposal for an electoral system based on AV. So be it. At least then I would have confidence that this represented a genuine, deliberated popular will and not - as Stuart Weir rightly worries - an opportunistic stitch-up by the elite of one political party.