It’s sad to see that after all the decent, principled arguments that have been made in favour of electoral reform, the debate appears to be descending into partisan political interest in the Labour Party. Tonight, the Parliamentary Labour Party has the opportunity to make political history by committing Labour to a referendum on the Alternative Vote. But instead, stories abound of MPs mounting a rearguard action to scupper the plans because they are worried they might lose their seat if votes start to count.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? If safe seat MPs are getting worried about the prospect of AV, it’s because they don’t command the majority support of the public. I don’t want to see Labour colleagues losing at the election after next. But I do want to see them fighting for every last vote, and that is what AV will force them to do.
AV wouldn’t have been my preferred system. I think Gordon Brown should have made the bold choice and gone for a more proportional system such as AV+. But we are where we are and at least AV will get rid of the situation, once and for all, of people being able to rightly say that their vote doesn’t count.
After the expenses crisis, the Labour Party needs to show that it has got the ideas to restore some trust to the democratic process. It also needs to demonstrate that the old bully-boy politics of non-majoritarian rule is going to be consigned to history and that we are willing to embrace a more pluralist politics which recognises difference and doesn’t immediately perceive it as dissent.
AV is a symbolic start to what needs to be a much wider push for reform, including electing the House of Lords, removing the power from the Government to set the Parliamentary timetable and appoint Select Committee chairs, and introducing recall. Labour doesn’t have much time left to put at least some of this in train. I have no idea why the Government has dragged its feet for so long on the recommendation’s of Tony Wright’s reform of the House of Commons Committee report which was published last November. Many of the suggestions in the report could be implemented without huge legislative upheaval. If Gordon Brown was serious in his speech to the Fabian Society last Saturday that “Trust in politics and constitutional reform are on the ballot paper” at the next election, he’d do well to embrace the Wright report as soon as possible.
And the rest of the PLP would do well to endorse the idea of a referendum on AV if Labour wins the next election at their meeting tonight. If they step back, Labour will miss a prime opportunity to show it means business on reform. It would be what the public has come to expect. Let’s hope our parliamentarians prove me wrong.