I am a big fan of This Week. I always try and watch it and have generally been very impressed with Michael Portillo in the last few years. He seems to have his finger on the pulse of most political issues. That's why I listened with particular interest last night when the discussion was about electoral reform.
Portillo seems to be under the rather odd impression that anything except the First Past the Post system is crazy. He was arguing that the only reason the BNP got MEPs was because of the "crazy" PR system. Andrew Neil tried to press upon him that it might be the fact that almost a million people voted for them but he was having none of it.
I am very disappointed with how unwilling the political old guard are to engage with the idea that FPTP might not be fit for purpose. We are a much more pluralistic country now than we were 50 years ago and our electoral system just does not reflect that.
Another thing that really hit home with me was when both Portillo and Diane Abbott talked about the political reality of getting a referendum on electoral reform through the House of Commons. They are both clearly of the view that irrespective of whatever Gordon Brown or Alan Johnson might wish to happen, many Labour MPs and virtually all Tory MPs would be against such an idea, thus they would not even allow a referendum on it.
This has had me thinking even more deeply about this issue. I have heard people say what I am about to say before but the whole expenses debacle brings it home even more clearly.
MPs as a group cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of democracy or of the country when it comes to the system that is used to elect them. They have too much vested interest in the existing system. Whatever they might say, they have already proved themselves incapable of doing what is right for the country/taxpayers with the expenses debacle. They were in charge of their own system of claims and remuneration and it is now abundantly clear that it was stacked massively in favour of them being able to claim almost anything they liked to their own personal advantage. They came up with all sorts of arguments against changing the system for years and years, tried to cover up the truth of what was going on and the only reason things are now changing is because all the information got out into the public domain. Now all political leaders and virtually all MPs accept it has to change and they could not, after all be trusted.
Exactly the same situation applies to the electoral system for the House of Commons. the First Past the Post system is completely unfair. It allows governments to be formed with 55% of the seats on 35% of the vote. It disenfranchises millions of people across the country. In fact the only people who really count at election time are the 100,000 or so swing voters in the marginal constituencies. I am afraid that having listened to the arguments from the MPs who are opponents of electoral reform they are mostly spurious and designed to fit into neat soundbites that can be used to shoot down the arguments of reformers without properly engaging with the issues.
What is missing from the debate on electoral reform is the sort of huge spasm of revulsion that the expenses scandal has caused. That is why the parallels between the two situations need to be highlighted at every opportunity.
Why should we take MPs at their word that FPTP is the right system when it massively favours many of them and effectively gives them tenure for life? They are in complete control of the terms and conditions of their own employment. They have already proved that they cannot be trusted when it comes to deciding these sorts of terms.
The solution is for a citizens convention populated by ordinary people chosen in the same way as juries are chosen (but with more than 12 members) who are given the time and space to look at all the different systems and come to a conclusion about which is the best one to change to. This can then be put to the country in a referendum. I favour Single Transferable Vote but I am happy to go with whatever the convention chooses.
I repeat, we should not trust MPs as a group to do what is right for the country on this issue. They are only human and they have too much of a vested interest in the current system. the time has come for this to change.