By Matt Strong
This morning Hilary Benn suggested that the road to restoring trust will be long and hard. That old survivor Ken Livingstone has declared that a new speaker is just the start. It is easy to agree with both. Even before this latest episode in nihilism, trust in politicians was on a par with those well-perceived professionals: estate agents and journalists. On Saturday, I will be canvassing for Labour in the run-up to the Euro elections, and I can only imagine the hostile reception some people will give me. People are angry, people feel let down. And they’re right to feel that way.
So what is the solution? Changing the speaker is not enough. Even changing the way expenses are allocated isn’t enough. Too little, too late; but both options are certainly necessary actions in the road to restoring public trust, if not wholly sufficient. What’s really needed is a complete overhaul of our parliamentary system. That has to start with giving the British people a referendum on how we elect parliament and introducing a single transferable vote system now must be seen as a serious option.
For those who aren’t as geeky as myself when it comes to electoral systems, that bastion of knowledge, Wikipedia, gives an explanation of STV in fairly lay terms here.
The STV method has all the hallmarks of a solid, effective voting system with none of the risks or drawbacks associated with truly proportionate systems. Giving power back to voters through ranking candidates in order of preference means such candidates become responsive to their communities more than they are currently. How many MPs – from all parties – in safe seats become complacent and lazy thanks to the ‘job for life’ their constituency parties or associations have awarded them? I’m sure we can all name names. It is important too for MPs to have a direct link to the local communities that have elected them, and indeed multi-member constituency of three to four MPs would strengthen that rather than weaken it.
As we are all too aware, the BNP could get a foothold in the European Parliament thanks to a proportionate regional list system being used next month. Within an STV system, the transferal of votes rewards consensual and moderate politicians whilst simultaneously punishing extremist ones. Electoral reform does not mean allowing fascists into parliament through the back door.
Until now, I thought that the opportunity to implement electoral reform had passed us by following the government’s refusal to accept the flawed recommendations of the Jenkins Commission. That report suggested a switch to a form of electoral system similar to the ones used currently in the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament. Personally I don’t think such a system offers the safeguards of STV but it would certainly have been an improvement on the status quo or other suggestions such as an appalling national list system as used in Israel.
As the old cliche goes, every cloud has a silver lining and the MPs expenses row could prove that. We have reached a crisis point and part of the healing process should now be to bring in an electoral system that will allow voters to remove rotten candidate without punishing the party they support. In recent days senior politicians from across the house have called for a review of how we elect parliament. From Alan Johnson to the current speaker’s nemesis Douglas Carswell, calls for reform are growing louder. When cabinet members and now even Tories are talking constitutional reform, you know the time for change must be near.
Trust in politicians is surely now at an all-time low. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is quite right to speak out and accept that the road to restoring trust will be long and hard. But why make it longer and harder than it needs to be? Surely there has never been a better time to take electoral reform to the people than now.