So the man styling himself as our next Prime Minister thinks that modernising our voting system is ‘crazy’. I think it’s quite revealing that he believes that a system genuinely representative of the people’s wishes (or in AV+’s case more representative) is a bad thing. Apparently the people must ‘feel like this is their parliament’, but actually making it more their parliament is out of the question. Cheers Dave, but the only way it can worry about what I worry about is if it represents me better than it does now. My MP is Joan Ruddock, who because she controls a safe Labour (or in her case New Labour) seat doesn’t have to represent my wishes at all; first-past-the-post sees to that. I’ve even debated my wishes with her, and she didn’t want to know; why should she? There’s no constitutional mechanism to make her. Cameron is right when he champions select committees to increase accountability within parliament – no question – but that can only be part of wider constitutional reform which includes a more proportional voting system. And the Commons should have more control over its timetable – the legislature genuinely does need its powers ramped up against the now almighty executive, but if the legislature doesn’t represent the people’s wishes better than it already does, that’ll only do so much good. If the new parliament’s concerns go no further than continuing to placate swing voters in marginal seats, noone’ll notice much difference. Willie Sullivan from Vote for a Change said:
“Under our current system, a nation of 45 million voters will leave it to a quarter of a million in the marginals to decide the outcome of the next election.
“It’s the equivalent of letting only people who live in Brighton decide the government of the United Kingdom. The question of who runs Britain is all our business, and for that we need a vote that really counts.
“Polls have shown time and again that people are prepared to break with the past.
“MPs can stick their fingers in their ears and pretend its business as usual, or they can help make 2010 the last broken election.”
It’s a great illustration of the representational failure at the heart of first-past-the-post. Intriguingly for the post-Brown era beginning in May, Foreign Secretary David Miliband said:
“We’ve still got a 19th century political system trying to address 20th century problems and in my book the whole system – the election to the Commons, the Lords, local government and how it’s organised, fixed terms parliaments – they should all be on a ballot.
“We should have what I would call a reset referendum that would reset the political system in a way that can actually address modern problems by getting power where it belongs, by checking power at the right places, by giving more rights and making sure rights of the individual are safe-guarded.”
Frustratingly though, other members of the parliamentary Labour Party don’t get it:
Labour former minister Tom Harris, MP for Glasgow South, raised laughter as he asked Straw: “Do you attribute the stainless reputation of Italian politicians to the fact that they have proportional representation?”
Of course PR (which wrongly isn’t on the table for this referendum) hasn’t saved Italian politics from total dysfunction, but the reasons for that aren’t down to the voting system. Take a look at Germany, which is also governed by a PR system. Their system has been a model for the Western world since 1949 – fairly representing the people has allowed them successfully to absorb a failed state (the GDR), their 5% representational threshold for parliament has made it hard for extreme parties to get into the Bundestag in the first place, and even when they’ve made it that far they’ve always fizzled out. Coalition politics and a culture of compromise has brought about remarkable stability, not to mention the necessary diversity into Germany politics. Britain, with first-past-the-post, has descended into complete ambivalence, and why not, when our elected representatives do whatever it takes to retain power, not to fulfill their side of the political contract?
The House of Commons voted 365-187 for a referendum on AV+ after the election, but it remains unclear if the bill will get passed before the general election in May.
The closer we get to the general election, the further the government is buying its head in the sand. After paying lip service to electoral reform, following the expenses scandal, with vague promises of a referendum on AV+ after the election, they seem to think the public has their eye off the ball on the other, equally vital changes needed:
Proposals for reform were drawn up by a cross-party committee set up on the instruction of Gordon Brown at the height of the expenses scandal, who said changes were needed to restore trust in politics.
The committee, chaired by the Labour MP Tony Wright, recommended electing select committee chairmen and members and a new committee to decide non-government business.Ms Harman has been lukewarm about the proposals since they were published last year, suggesting that they can only be implemented on the basis of “unanimity”. Now members of the committee have been told that the Government is preparing to allow a debate on February 23 and a vote on the proposals. The Government has decided to table an “unamendable order” — which will mean that an objection from a single MP will prevent any of the measures from being introduced. This is almost certain to happen since there is a hardcore minority against the proposals.
The Government denies blocking reform but Labour sources believe that Nick Brown, the Chief Whip, is leading the opposition to the plans and has persuaded Ms Harman to join him.
Now clearly suicidal, they’re chasing one another off the proverbial cliff. It’s worth remembering just how vital some of the rest of these reforms are – the Iraq War and other abuses under New Labour didn’t happen just because of the government’s wishes. The executive wasn’t constrained by the Commons – they’re all institutionally complicit in the war, extraordinary rendition, the Extradition Act, torture, you name it. To then walk away from genuine reform would be the biggest abuse of all.
The expenses scandal brought the political process to the brink of collapse, but Gordon Brown seems to think no legislative action is needed to restore the relationship between the electorate and our representatives. Sir Christopher Kelly, tasked with fixing the expenses system, argued:
fresh legislation would be needed to strengthen July’s Parliamentary Standards Act, which established the new Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa). “It is disappointing therefore that the Queen’s speech did not contain measures to address the changes we believe to be necessary affecting the remit, powers and independence of the new body being established to regulate expenses,” Kelly said.
Brown however disagrees:
Downing Street insisted the most dramatic changes to the MPs’ allowance system proposed by Kelly could be implemented without a parliamentary vote, and any further legislation required would be brought forward on a cross-party basis as and when it was needed.
Talk about kicking it into the long grass. Of course reform of the expenses system itself is only a part of the problem, and Brown completely ignored the need for electoral reform as well. His Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill might tinker with the House of Lords, would finally reform the abusive SOCPA legislation limiting the right to protest near Parliament, but there’s no word on a referendum to change the voting system – not even on the constitutional convention which would be needed in advance of a referendum. There’s a Citizen’s Convention Bill knocking around the Commons, but Brown prefers vague promises of a referendum after the election – great, but Cameron isn’t. And considering Blair and Brown kicked the Jenkins Report into touch after winning an unassailable majority in 1997, why should Brown even be trusted to deliver if he won?
Missing was the bill that was the one bold act that could have changed the argument at the next election: a referendum on proportional representation would have been a cause to bring back erstwhile Labour voters, leaving Cameron defending an indefensible system. Like Blair before him, Brown bottled it, too much the old tribalist for real reform – and Labour may come to regret that most bitterly of all.
The effect of electoral reform and a more proportional system, would be to create a different kind of parliament in a post expenses world, she claimed. “A more proportional system is more voter sensitive and more voter reactive system than we have at present.”
Of course she’s right but seems to have been overruled. Her boss clearly still doesn’t understand the severity of the problem which has happened on his watch, which he in large part was responsible for. He has an opportunity right now to clear it up or at least to put the building blocks together to show the electorate he understands their disengagement, but he’s completely bottled it. Again. The electorate is looking to MPs to show they understand that fundamental change is needed in the way the Commons does business, how it’s composed and how representative it is, but the Queen’s Speech doesn’t offer any change at all. Brown will lose the election, Cameron will flatly ignore any mention of a referendum, when he could have been put in a very difficult situation indeed by an election day referendum.