Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

David Cameron, Electoral Reform, Turkeys and Christmas

Electoral reform is now at the top of the political agenda. As part of the crisis that the political system now faces, calls for a radical overhaul of the constitution have been very loud indeed.

Alan Johnson the Health Secretary joined the debate yesterday with an article in The Times calling for a referendum on electoral reform to be put to the electorate and to coincide with the next General Election. It seems that his argument is winning support both within the cabinet and the Parlimentary Labour Party. Part of Mr Johnson's thesis is:

The adoption of AV+ (a proportional electoral system originally devised by the Jenkins Commission in 1998 by the late Roy Jenkins) would shift the political focus currently concentrated almost exclusively on a few swing voters in a handful of marginal seats. It would end the perversity of the party with the most votes nationally forming the opposition rather than the government, as has happened twice since the war.

I absolutely agree that it is dreadful how our existing "First Past the Post" electoral system causes all political parties to focus on a very small minority of "swing voters" in marginal constituencies hence allowing the winner of General Elections to be decided by a few tens of thousands of voters. Reform of the electoral system to a proportional system would completely transform the political landscape and would genuinely mean that every vote counted towards the end result. The benefits of this approach would be immense and would reenfranchise great swathes of the electorate whose votes are currently wasted.

Clearly David Cameron has sensed that proper electoral reform is quickly gaining traction as an idea and has leapt in to try and halt the debate. In a wide ranging article in The Guardian as part of their "A New Politics" series he argues for all sorts of reform including reducing the power of No 10, "seriously considering" the option of fixed term parliaments, boosting the power of MPs and curbing the power of the executive. All of these are welcome measures and (if implemented properly) would certainly help to improve our system of Government.

However, when it comes to the biggest reform of all and the one that would yield the most results in terms of improving democracy and empowering the electorate, i.e. a more proportional electoral system, Mr Cameron has this to say:

A Conservative government will not consider introducing proportional representation, as many participants in A New Politics have demanded. The principle underlying all the political reforms a Conservative government would make is the progressive principle of redistributing power and control from the powerful to the powerless. PR would actually move us in the opposite direction, which is why I'm so surprised it's still on the wish-list of progressive reformers. Proportional representation takes power away from the man and woman in the street and hands it to the political elites. Instead of voters choosing their government on the basis of the manifestos put before them in an election, party managers would choose a government on the basis of secret backroom deals. How is that going to deliver transparency and trust?

This strikes me as clangingly at odds with the rest of what Mr Cameron is arguing. He claims that PR will move power from the electorate to the political elite but at the moment a government can win 55% of the seats in parliament on 35% of the vote (Labour did this in 2005) so how is this empowering the voter? Great swathes of voters under the current system needent bother voting as their choice at the ballot box makes no difference to the end result. As for his argument about secret backroom deals by party managers, well that doesn't stand up to scrutiny either. Currently, this sort of thing happens anyway within the party of government as we effectively have an elective dictatorship headed by the Prime Minister. At least with a proportional system, any attempt to push legislation through will be under more scrutiny whether this is through a coalition or a minority administration. Laws and measures will be better as a result of being properly debated. At the moment the government can largely pass whatever it wants and just whip its troops through the relevant lobby without having to win the argument and convince other parliamentarians of its case.

I would not expect Mr Cameron to be in favour of PR. If the polls are correct, he is likely to become the next Prime Minister and under the current electoral system could find himself with a decent sized majority on a minority of votes. He is still a young man and is probably hoping to get at least two terms as Prime Minister to be able to govern the country according to his principles and along the lines that previous administrations with the ability to legilslate unhindered by the need for full scrutiny. Mr Cameron's best hope of this sort of untrammelled power is to do exactly what he is now doing. He is a canny enough politician to know that there is a clamour for change and he has to address it so he is positioning himself by offering some changes (and they are important ones). But without proper electoral reform his other measures are merely tinkering at the edges.

My view on this is that if Mr Cameron is so sure of his arguments then he should back a referendum campaign and then campaign against it. That is the way to win his argument properly. At the moment he is trying to prevent the argument from being taken to the people of this country so that they can decide and if he gets his way there will not even be a referendum. One has to ask oneself why he does not want a referendum on this, after all he is keen enough to have one on the Lisbon Treaty. On that issue, suddenly the views of the electorate are desperately important.

There is another very important point that I think needs to be made here too. The MP Expenses scandal that has dominated the political scene for the last two and a half weeks has come about directly as a result of MPs deciding the rules about how they are paid and remunerated for their time. It has been shown over the last couple of weeks that they cannot be trusted with this and politicians of all parties are now calling for the decisions about how MPs are paid to be decided by an external panel. MPs are only human and it is perhaps not surprising that left to their own devices they would come up with and support a system that was to their advantage even when it was against what was in the public interest.

There is a direct parallel between this and the electoral system. Exactly the same principles apply to this as to MPs expenses and salaries. By the status quo of a desperately unfair electoral system being allowed to remain, most MPs benefit. Most MPs are in very or relatively safe seats and as long as they toe the party line can expect to be in parliament for many years, often decades. However, if a new electoral system was brought in, suddenly quite a lot of MPs may find that their positions were not as secure as they were before. There would be more democratic accountability and their chances of remaining in a safe seat for their entire career would be diminished.

The phrase "Turkeys don't vote for Christmas" is often used about this subject and it is spot on. As I said, MPs are only human and it is unsurprising that many of them are opposed to electoral reform as it endangers their personal careers. If I worked in a company with 645 other people and was given a vote on changes that would make my job less secure I would find it difficult to vote yes to that.

This is why the choice should be taken out of the hands of MPs. Just as with their expenses and their salaries they cannot be expected to do what is in the public's best interests when it comes to the electoral system. It needs to be put out to an external scrutiny panel.

And the best external scrutiny panel is the one made up of the electorate of the United Kingdom.

A broad range of people have launched a campaign this week for a referendum on PR to coincide with the next General Election. Please see my previous post here for details and how to get involved.


Darrell said...


Good blog post here too. I think this may well become a dividing line between Labour and the Conservatives and that will put us in something of an awkward position politically.

In general, I lean towards prefering AV+ too because it does maintain the constituency link. As you rightly say this stance from Cameron is totally at odds with the rest of what he is saying...

Mark Thompson said...

Thanks for the feedback Darrell.

I don't actually favour AV+ (as I make clear here but I think we need to get people on board for PR first before nailing the exact system and I would take AV+ over FPTP any day!

Mark Thompson said...

PS: Darrell, I have just started following you on Twitter too. I am here BTW.

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Matt Sellwood said...

Since you mentioned the call for a referendum on PR, you might also be interested in a new organisation that is calling for legislation enabling recall of MPs -

Best wishes,