(from The Guardian)
This is an extraordinary political moment. An election seemingly destined to produce a narrow Conservative victory has been seized by the voters and turned into a democratic contest – a contest not just between parties, but over the shape of our democracy itself.
The MPs that assemble in Westminster next month could usher in one of the great reforming parliaments in British history, one to rank in the history books alongside 1831-32, 1865-67 or 1911-1914. The next parliament could see cherished progressive liberal aspirations realised: a proportional electoral system; wider and better-defended civil liberties; a new, internationalist approach to foreign affairs and immigration; reform of the tax system to share wealth and curb carbon emissions; and an assault on the vested interests of the financial sector.
The question for progressive liberals is what election result now offers the best chance of achieving these goals. Certainly not a Conservative majority. Despite some welcome commitments in areas such as civil liberties and localism, the Tories remain instinctively opposed to the deep democratic reforms the country needs.
But a return of a majority Labour government under Gordon Brown would not provide a strong enough guarantee of reform. Labour has a long list of achievements over the last 13 years, of which it can be proud. But Labour has also presided over a ruinous period for civil liberties and has failed to deliver wholesale political reform.
Labour does now promise fixed-term parliaments, an elected House of Lords and a referendum on the alternative vote: too little, too late.
The question is where the energy for the future of progressive politics is to be found. It is a contemporary political fact that the stronger the performance of the Liberal Democrats on 6 May the better the chances of progressive reform.
The Liberal Democrats are today’s change-makers. They have already changed the election; next they could drive fundamental change in our political and economic landscape.
Some of us have already pinned our colours to the Liberal Democrat mast. For others, the decision to back the Liberal Democrats in this election is a difficult one. Long-standing party loyalties, even in a less tribal world, are not easily suspended. But May 2010 offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape politics for the better. It must be seized.
Richard Reeves, John Kampfner, Professor Noreena Hertz, Susie Orbach, Shazia Mirza, Camilla Toulmin, Brian Eno, John le Carré, Henry Porter, Alex Layton, Gordon Roddick, Yasmin Alibhai Brown, Philip Pullman, David Aukin, Nick Harkaway, Lisa Appignanesi, Francis Wheen, Alan Ryan, Raymond Tallis, Julian Baggini, Jeanette Winterson, Rodric Braithwaite, Richard Dawkins, George Monbiot, Ken Macdonald, Philippe Sands, Misha Glenny, Anthony Barnett, Richard Sennett, David Marquand
David Cameron said it was irresponsible to scaremonger in this general election campaign. His hypocrisy knows no bounds:
The Tories say they’re offering ‘change’, yet they offer this party election broadcast, which implies that if you vote Labour or Lib Dem you might die! I mean what the hell is that noose?! But that’s not the only offensive part of this video. Rather than arguing about other parties’ policies they argue against the possible outcome, but in doing so they completely misrepresent their own responsibilities. ‘Behind closed doors politics’? So the ‘wash up’ was something to be proud of, or we’re supposed to forget that? ‘Indecision and weak government’? Really? I think you’ll find Germany managed to absorb an entire economically failed state, and has managed extremely strong government since 1949. And it’s just preposterous to suggest a hung parliament would kill the economic recovery…
To attack the Labour Party and Lib Dems as offering ‘undemocratic’ politics and dithering, should the Tories not win outright is an incredible slur on the electorate, who’ve expressed a clear dislike for politics as it’s been up until now. They don’t want the Tories’ half measure of being able merely to recall MPs – they want a system which is actually representative of their wishes and their needs. They want a system which is founded on cooperation and compromise rather than confrontation. That really would be an evolutionary step forwards for British politics, rather than just being dominated by the same old corporate interests which got their way with the Digital Economy Act.
Polly Toynbee makes an excellent case for making the general election all about reforming the voting system. Shame it won’t happen:
With a chance of a hung parliament, a Labour party sincerely committed to reform – not merely putting up a show bill it knew would fall – will be considerably more attractive to the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives will never relinquish first-past-the-post, and Cameron couldn’t get such a change past his MPs if he tried. But he might consider that a referendum already on the statute book makes a deal with the Lib Dems easier. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, must stand his ground and demand full proportional representation without fearing that it makes him look self-interested. It’s the only hope on the horizon for political change. Conservatives had better stop warning that coalitions cause dangerous financial indecision: on the contrary, across Europe coalitions have created most financial stability with the broadest public agreement. Greece and Britain (with its IMF and ERM crises) are the ones with “strong” one party government.
Voting reform does mean turbulence and uncertainty for Labour, but most Labour MPs swallowed hard and voted for it, knowing that we can’t go on like this. It was a moment when Labour threw off some of its worst tribalism and opened the window to co-operation with others. Brown was accused of cynical positioning, but he can prove he is a serious reformer by making this his fight to the end, even at cost of losing other good bills. This is his legacy moment.
And it is a shame it won’t happen – a shame for all parties. I sincerely believe they’ve all underestimated the fury which remains out there about the expenses scandal, and of the political price which needs to be paid for that. But the thing is that there’s noone out there making the case for electoral reform to stop that sort of easy corruption happening again. Rather there is – pressure groups like Vote for a Change are doing sterling work – but the media on the whole are ignoring them, and there’s an easy case to be made in saying that it was the House of Commons’ traditions and culture which led directly to the expenses scandal; PR might never have made a difference. I don’t think that’s true, but I’m not hearing that one at all…
What someone needs to do is to show how stronger government (as Polly points out in her comments about Greece and Britain) does come from PR – Germany for example successfully absorbed a failed state after less than 30 years using PR; Britain in contrast has all three main parties now largely undifferentiated from one another, all offering a variation on a theme which noone even wants. Point out that discrepancy and see if electoral reform suddenly races up the list of priorities. Until then this will remain an idealistic article, which will fall on deaf ears.
The Tories would have you believe that they’re interested in change, but the biggest stumbling block to MPs behaving better and actually representing people better is the first-past-the-post electoral system. David Cameron really wants to be Prime Minister by convincing the electorate that the Tories can deliver Obama-style change (and look just how much change he’s really brought in), but leaving the voting system unchanged will just continue to mean the same false priorities being chased: accommodating the poll-based whims of floating voters in marginal seats. It’s caused the rise of the BNP, it’s been at the root of the expenses scandal and has allowed New Labour’s surveillance agenda to pass through the Commons with barely a murmur. So if you feel ‘Dave’ is a better choice than so-called ‘bully’ Brown, just think about what change is actually needed before anything else. Get the right people in first or you might as well just not bother.
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.
There will be a referendum after all, to replace Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, which allows a party to become the government, even though a majority of voters have voted for someone else:
Jack Straw, the justice secretary, will introduce the change in an amendment to the constitutional renewal bill. This will amount to paving legislation for a referendum on whether to introduce AV, to be held no later than October 2011.
Ministers, who agreed the move at a meeting of the cabinet’s democratic renewal committee (DRC) yesterday, believe that the prospect of a referendum will have three key benefits. It will:
• Allow Labour to depict itself at the general election as the party of reform in response to the parliamentary expenses scandal.
• Make David Cameron look like a defender of the status quo. The Tories, who are opposed to abolishing the first-past-the-post system, would have to introduce fresh legislation to block the referendum if they win the election.
• Increase the chances that the Liberal Democrats will support Labour – or at least not support the Tories – if no party wins an overall majority at the election, resulting in a hung parliament. The Lib Dems have traditionally regarded the introduction of PR as their key demand in any coalition negotiations. While AV does not technically count as PR, many Lib Dems regard AV as a step in the right direction.
I’m not happy with the idea of AV, when AV isn’t really any more proportional than first-past-the-post. And it does look like a sickeningly cynical manoever, although if they manage to keep the referendum in place if/when they lose the election, it will indeed be quite an impressive achievement. Someone at least has understood that they have to present themselves as a party prepared to embrace change, but if this is as far as they’re prepared to go down that road then even then it doesn’t even count as a half measure. Britain’s surveillance culture is now completely out of control – we’re well down the road of everyone having to be checked so that they’re not a paedophile, merely in order to get a job. We’re in a time when photographers snapping a sunset are being stopped by police for fear of being terrorists, and when a government with a track record of screwing up databases reserves the right to hold on to your DNA, even if you are innocent of a crime. If they’re unprepared to think about tackling these terrible civil liberties and human rights abuses and are using a referendum promise to distract our attention, and to outflank the Tories for future electoral gain, then they really aren’t interested in change at all. I agree with Stephen Tall, who says:
Labour has had 12 years in which to renew the democratic fabric of this country. They failed to do anything about it because, quite simply, they didn’t care enough about it. If they care now, it is only because it’s expedient to; and expediency is the worst possible motive for reform.
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.
The only way this country is going to get on the right track once more is by changing the way we elect our MPs. First-past-the-post worked in an age where adversarial politics led to a certain degree of perceived stability, when class politics determined the electoral cycle and was the main determinant of how people voted. Those days are long gone, and we now live in a diverse country where the wishes of the majority are ignored in the quest for the floating voter in marginal seats. Apathy in ‘safe’ seats has become endemic, as the electorate realises there’s no point in voting, because their votes really don’t make a difference. We can change that by changing the system to reflect the wishes of the majority – oh you keep hearing the nonsensical attack stories, complaining the BNP would make it into Westminster, that we’d end up with coalition government. But look at Germany – absorbing an entire Communist east into a PR system in only a generation. Is Germany any less stable now than it was 20 years ago? They were run by monsters half a century ago – there isn’t even a hint of that now.
It’s great news that Vote for a Change’s Willie Sullivan has met with Gordon Brown and Jack Straw. Nothing may come from it right now, but the fact that the meeting has even taken place suggests the government is oh-so-slowly realising that the solution to the expenses scandal might very well rest with a referendum on the voting system. Brown may be finished come what may next summer, but he could well enable a system which could also make the Tories’ return far briefer than they would wish, at least governing alone; I think he knows this too. Will the timidest of Prime Ministers make a bold, last move? We can only hope. The future success of our democracy and our civil liberties could rest on it.
Last Friday Vote for a Change held a protest outside the Houses of Parliament in support of a more proportional voting system. The zombie theme was supposed to signify that our voting system is dead but going on anyway and destroying our democracy in the process. If you support a referendum for proportional representation to be introduced as the UK’s voting system click here.
Come back here from 1915 BST to see my liveblog of Vote for a Change’s debate at the Houses of Parliament tonight. One side will support reform to a more proportional voting system, the other will support the status quo – first past the post. Comments will be extremely welcome here and on the liveblog as I go, and if I figure it out in time you should be able to tweet to the liveblog too.
Should be lively, and should be interesting.
Vote for a Change’s Gravy Train is travelling between constituencies, to inform people about their campaign for a referendum to decide for us to decide how we choose our politicians, rather than leaving it to the politicians:
I think Sal Brinton is right when she says that our current voting system too often means MPs know they aren’t going to be thrown out by their constituencies if they don’t represent them adequately – it’s contrary to what democracy is supposed to be about and people are stopping voting because of it. We need to move to a proportional system of representation urgently to make every vote count. Call for a referendum here. You want it? Make it happen.
Oh and tell Vote for a Change here where you think the Gravy Train should visit next. Your constituency?
Vote for a Change have arranged a debate in Portcullis House next week between those advocating radical change and those supporting the first-past-the-post system.
It’s at 1930 on the 13th October. Click here to secure your seat!
Open to visitors – but closed to voters.
That’ll be Parliament this weekend.
As part of the city wide Open House event, Westminster’s doors will be thrown open to the public on Saturday and Sunday.
But as you and I well know, our voices as citizens will remain largely shut out from the building.
Help us make some noise about that fact this Friday. Sign up now to join us at Westminster as we protest about Parliament being closed to democracy:
We’ll be gathering at 10:30 a.m. at the St. Stephen’s Gate entrance to raise awareness about the urgent need to give voters a say in our political system – right on Parliament’s doorstep.
Hope to see you on Friday for what should be a fun and fruitful event.
Vote for a Change