Gordon Brown has declared himself in favour of a new politics. But renewing politics from on high after 10 years in government is a very tall order. It will certainly require more than warm words about trust or whiter than white standards. If Gordon wants to strengthen the accountability of politics he should start with restoring the power of the vote. This is unfinished business from Labour’s 1997 manifesto promise to hold a referendum on the voting system. Voting reform for the Commons would get to the heart of Britain’s democratic malaise. But, the new Prime Minister will need inclusive tactics as well as high principles if he is to win the backing of the country, the party and parliamentarians for this most elusive of reforms. And reformers must be willing to support achievable progress rather than hold out for a perfectly proportional system.
Our current present first past the post voting system is distorting the culture of politics. At the last election:
• Two thirds of the parties’ campaign budgets were spent on the 850,000 voters (i.e. 2% of the electorate) who matter in the marginal seats.
• Only 34% of MPs (the lowest ever) were elected with the support of a majority of voters in the constituency.
• Labour is in power, but doesn’t have a democratic mandate, as for every person who voted Labour, almost two voted for other parties and two didn’t vote at all.
The Jenkins Commission Report in 1998 proposed AV plus – a new system combining voter choice (i.e. the Alternative Vote system in which voters rank candidates in order of preference rather than putting a cross against one) with a small number of regional list MPs to provide some proportionality. As Jenkins himself recognised towards the end of his life, he would have been better separating these two principles and advocating the immediate introduction of voter choice (AV), with a later consideration of some proportional top-up.
This is precisely what Gordon Brown should propose now. The inclusion of AV in Labour’s next manifesto would wrong-foot the Conservatives – how could they argue against voter choice? It would ensure that MPs were elected by a majority of voters in their constituency, thus providing the government of the day with a firm popular mandate. By taking account of first and second preferences it would open up the possibility of Labour winning a popular mandate in England. This is surely an important consideration for Labour given the rise of the SNP and the continuing problem of the West Lothian question. AV would retain the constituency link and therefore be relatively straightforward to sell to MPs, who like the proverbial turkeys, are not likely to vote for Christmas, or a reform that which involve redrawing every constituency boundary.
For those who are passionate about proportional representation, voter choice would be a step forward. Whilst AV is no more or less proportional than first past the post, it would enable people to express their first preference, while still casting an effective vote. This would reveal the pluralism in British politics and open up a longer-term debate on the need for a referendum on proportional representation.
As Labour only needs to lose 2% of its vote at the last election to lose overall control, and the Tories need to win 11% to gain it, tactical voting at the next election could be significant. A clear declaration in favour of voter choice at the start of Gordon’s premiership would cast him as a radical reformer and strengthen Labour’s progressive coalition.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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