Like many people on what I think of as the pluralist and republican wing of the left, I am extremely disappointed by the ideas for political reform set out by Gordon Brown in his speech to the Labour Party conference.
Most of all, I am disappointed by the commitment to hold a referendum on AV after the next election. For me the issue is not simply, or even primarily, that the referendum would be held after the election, but that it would be held on whether or not to change to the Alternative Vote.
Although AV has a large number of supporters at the top of the Labour party, the case for AV as the direction for electoral reform has always been weak.
As I argued in an earlier post, replying to Peter Kellner's case for AV, PR is intrinsically fairer in terms of rewarding voters with seats. AV is not a proportional system; indeed, at some recent elections it would have delivered even more disproportional representation than the current system. If, as Peter suggests, you switch the focus from intrinisic fairness to long-term consequences, then there is research - which Peter seems unaware of - which shows that PR systems deliver better outcomes of the kind the left cares about in the long-run: greater economic equality. And, to anticipate, it is not true that PR necessarily severs the link between constituents and MPs.
Given that the argument for AV over PR is so weak, it is hard not to suppress the thought that the Labour Party leadership prefers AV out of partisan self-interest: it expects there to be more Labour MPs under AV. This is, I should say, barely a criticism of Labour's leadership, for virtually every party looks at electoral reform in terms of its partisan self-interest. That's what parties do.
The implication of this, I think, is that we have to look outside of the conventional party system for the kind of pressure and momentum that will bring change. This is the insight behind the call for a citizens' convention which we heard so much about earlier this year. Brown's disappointing speech only underscores just how important a citizens' convention and related popular campaign for reform is. Earlier this year, Real Change took up the call. It has now passed the baton on to a successor organization, Power 2010.
Far-reaching and fair reform of the political process is not going to be delivered by this Labour government. This is not just a matter of Gordon Brown's alleged circumspection. It is because it is difficult for the leadership of the party (as of any party) to approach the issue in a way that isn't distorted by calculations of partisan advantage.
So for those of us in the Labour party who do want fair-reaching and fair reform, the time has surely come to join and support organizations that are struggling for this outside, and against, the conventional parties. It's time to put our energy behind Power 2010.