By Kristofor Brown
Time is running out. The possibility of the government changing the voting system before the next election is looking less likely every day. And holding a referendum knowing that it could not act on the outcome before an election would merely make the government look even more inept.
Does this mean we must simply wait for an election that may well bring about another Conservative government with no interest whatsoever in electoral reform? A20tax-cutting, service-cutting government at a time of economic recession could have dire consequences for working people – and disastrous ones for people without work.
If the election leads to a Conservative victory then there is no prospect of a referendum after the election.
So where do we go from here? A suggestion could be to have a referendum on the same day as the election.
The referendum question could be on a specific system, but a better and more likely (everything is relative) approach might be on the principle of change to a broad proportionality and greater voter choice, perhaps with a proposed mechanism (e.g. a citizens’ assembly) for making t he final decision.
There are a lot of democratic arguments in its favour:
• Higher participation because turnout would be determined by the general election.
• A pre-election referendum runs the risk of being used by the electorate as a way of kicking the government, while if concurrent it would enable these issues to be disentangled.
• A pre-election referendum campaign would be dominated by accusations of Labour trying to rig the system to stave of defeat. If it merely binds the next parliament, this would not apply as the next election would take place under current rules. Labour would be giving up an aspiration to future artificial majorities.
• There would be a period of consideration in advance of the legislation, it would enable a better PR model to be introduced than would be possible in a hurry.
• The concentrated scorn of the right wing press would not pour entirely on the pro-PR campaign; it would have to share this with the government, and the anti campaign would be weakened compared to a stand-alone election. The referendum campaign could also serve as a means of energising progressive campaigners whose votes would count in the election itself.
• Reforming Labour MPs would be freer to put their credentials to the electorate as people who stood for a genuine change in politics, by endorsing and participating in the Yes campaign.
• A united Conservative ‘No’ campaign would be easy to portr ay as power-crazed.
While getting a referendum on polling day might be easier than changing the system beforehand, it would nevertheless be a major challenge. It can, however, be argued that Labour has a (sort of) manifesto commitment to a referendum which might help by avoiding obstruction in the Lords, and at a time of economic difficulty the costs of a separate referendum should be avoided. Success would require a powerful campaign involving people of real influence, unions, pressure groups and other NGOs, and media backing. Getting the referendum would need votes in Parliament, but cast in the din of noise from outside. Thought also needs to be given to how a referendum campaign would be run when there is an overlap between electoral reform activists and party activists.
If we are going to do anything, we need to do it fast. Parties are already working on their manifestos, and the autumn conferences will be the last before the election (leaders may ignore conference, but conferences are useful for getting the message out). The legislation for a referendum would need to be enacted well before the election – i.e. before the end of this year.
With the country in financial crisis we need a better representative parliament in which all serious voices can be heard. Old politics has failed us. We need to bust open politics to make way for new ideas and new ways of doing things.