Gordon Brown’s announcement that the government is willing to engage with the debate on electoral reform is welcome if very belated. After all, a Speakers’ Conference recommended the Alternative Vote in 1916, so it’s hardly at the cutting edge of policy innovation. We are now 12 years on from having promised to offer voters the opportunity to support moving towards a more proportional system, and still no sign that government is prepared to let the voters decide. Or at least they have “no plans” to do so, which is at least better than a categorical refusal. All we are promised is nebulous suggestions that there needs to be “broad consensus” and that proposals will be brought forward, with no indication of any timescale for establishing when this criterion is met.
It was very disappointing to hear Brown join David Cameron in expressing hostility to “proportional representation” for Westminster, unless by that he meant the European party list type of voting system. Surely the general principle that the result of a General Election should be a Parliament which broadly reflects each party’s share of the vote across the country should be axiomatic for democrats, notwithstanding debates around the strength of different systems.
And given that Brown has quite rightly reflected the public’s sense that the Commons is too much like a Gentleman’s Club – where the members get to determine their own rules – this logic would also suggest that it is no longer for MPs to determine the conditions of their own employment. They might have preferences for a particular voting system (coloured though they may be by self-interest), but it should not be for Prime Ministers, governments, opposition or even the Commons as a whole to set prior limits to the kinds of change on offer to the voters.
Fans of AV such as Peter Hain and Jack Straw should be free to make the case for such a reform at a referendum (hopefully not later than the day of the General Election – the last day open to this administration to call it). But if this referendum is to have any credibility whatsoever, it is vital that the option of changing to a more proportional system is put before the voters.
Opponents of a fairer voting system often make great play of the inviolability of the single member constituency link – something that was only finally established for the election of all MPs after World War II. It is easy to see the attraction of this for sitting MPs: it helps to preserve the sense of gentlemanly camaraderie in the Commons because it means that only on rare occasions are sitting members in direct competition with each other for votes. Also, it flatters the ego of every individual MP to be the sole representative for a particular area.
However, whether the voters are quite so happy with the arrangement is far more questionable. The majority of voters in most seats are represented by an MP for whom they did not vote. This member enjoys a monopoly of representation – if they are politically unsympathetic or otherwise judged to be unresponsive – voters have no-one else to whom they can turn. Given the public anger at the growth of the Tescopoly – local areas where a single supermarket excludes other options for consumers in that area – there is very good reason to believe that the public values the ability to “shop around”.
Both major parties now seem to accept this for the provision of every other public service and attack those who resist change as dinosaurs. But they are notably reticent when it comes to changing their own working practices. Very few, if any, advocates of electoral reform in this country would deny that it is important that the size of a constituency needs to be of a scale sufficient for people to have a reasonable chance of knowing who their representatives are. But this need not exclude multi-member constituencies – the principle is already established in local government without it leading to chaos.
In any case, even if the government chooses to support the continued existence of single member constituencies, this need not rule out the incorporation of an additional element of “top up” MPs to produce outcomes that do not distort the will of the electorate. Though not perfect (no electoral system is), the Jenkins proposal of AV+ at least has the merit of offering both greater choice in the constituency section – by allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference – while also ensuring that the shape of the Commons broadly reflects how people cast their vote.
If Labour is going to put a single proposal directly to a referendum – and there are good arguments for allowing the voters themselves to determine the nature of the change – then it is vital not to have as the only option one that in some cases might make the result of an election even more unfair.