Monday, 25 May 2009

A referendum on electoral reform? Yes, but let's think it through

It seems incredible, with these new calls for a referendum, but, in the wake of expensesgate, the cause of electoral reform is back.

The health secretary, Alan Johnson, has an article in today’s Times calling for a referendum on electoral reform for the Commons, to be held on the same day as the next general election. Mr Johnson may have various motives for coming out at this time in favour of a referendum [click here and here] but he is a long time proponent of electoral reform. Other members of the cabinet are known to agree with him.

Yesterday’s Observer supported reform, arguing that “the expenses scandal . . . has exposed the underlying illegitimacy of a parliament stuffed with complacent lifers in safe seats.” The same paper featured a letter from a variety of politicos, authors, artists, NGO leaders and others, with backgrounds across the political spectrum, demanding a binding referendum, to be included on the next general election ballot paper, on whether to adopt a more proportional electoral system. The Electoral Reform Society is running a campaign for such a vote. After years of near-silence, Liberal Democrats are back on the case.

MPs should be chosen using a proportional voting system. Not because “fair votes” would magically transform British politics or cure the nation’s ills. But it would be the key to strengthening the Commons as against the executive. We could have a parliament that better reflects the range of political viewpoints in the UK. Other countries’ experiences suggest that a change to PR would speed up (but not guarantee) the election of MPs who reflect the UK’s gender and ethnic diversity. In time, government policies may be more responsive to the needs of particular groups. That includes the poorest members of society, who tend not to vote or live in marginal constituencies.

There are good reasons for supporters of reform to welcome the new calls for a referendum, as the only democratic, legitimate and practical way of achieving change in the electoral system. On the basis of New Zealand’s experience in 1992/93 [click here and here], I have long argued that British voters would only opt for change when they were furious with politicians from both the main political parties and saw a chance to get even. People are now angry with the whole political “establishment”, and with a depth of feeling we have not seen before. Recalling the Obama administration’s mantra, “never waste a good crisis”, it’s hardly surprising that long-time electoral reformers sense a golden opportunity to achieve their aims.

But I fear that Britain's electoral reformers are, once again, going to be disappointed with these new calls for a referendum. One reason is the lack of clarity around what the public would be invited to vote on and how the choices would be arrived at.

The ERS wants “a referendum on electoral reform to appear on the ballot at the next general election”. It’s wise at this stage to call for “reform” rather than getting bogged down in the details of rival forms of proportional electoral systems.

If the referendum is to be legally binding – that is, on parliament – the ballot paper will have to give the options: first-past-the-post or a specific alternative. Supporters of reform need to know what they are campaigning for. Straight away, a basic, strategic dilemma opens up. Alan Johnson supports the “AV plus” system that was recommended by the Jenkins Commission. But the ERS officially supports the single transferable vote (STV). So do the Lib Dems. One of the main lessons from both New Zealand, and Scotland’s constitutional shake-up is that a proposed new reforms must have cross-party support. The Jenkins formula surely stands a better chance of gaining acceptance from Labour MPs and activists. It is not, however, a perfectly “proportional” system. STV meets this standard, but may be a harder sell. [For more details and a quick sample of how deeply some opinions are held, click on to Costigan Quist’s blog here and read the comments]

How to resolve this dilemma? The letter to The Observer suggests that the public would vote on whether to switch to a “more proportional electoral system [to] be drawn up by a large jury of randomly selected citizens, given the time and information to deliberate on what voting system and other changes would make Parliament more accountable to citizens.” But it would take time, perhaps many months, to complete this process, including passing the legislation required to set in train a binding referendum.

And here’s the real rub: with less than a year to go until the general election (assuming it’s held in May 2010), time is not on the reformers’ side. The outcome of a “citizens jury” may not, in the end, be credible. Tainted or not, MPs from all parties need to buy into the process and a citizens jury – still a relatively unfamiliar concept - may not be acceptable to them. Another option is to have another full-blown commission to study the options. That would take at least a year to complete. One of Alan Johnson’s strongest arguments today is that “the heavy lifting has already been done” by the Jenkins Commission. He adds that nothing has fundamentally changed (apart from the public getting much angrier with politicians) since Jenkins reported in 1998.

The New Zealand experience showed it takes a lot of time and effort to engage with a bemused public, who are more concerned with other things, and explain the merits of the alternative voting systems. The New Zealand reformers’ final victory in 1993 was the result of many years’ campaigning by a broad cross-section of political and community groups. The anti-change forces hit back, and started to close the gap in the final months before the vote. There’s no reason to suppose that this country would be any different.

Make Votes Count seems to have got its act together compared to where it was say, ten years ago. But I hope the reformers will be geared up and well enough funded for the sort of campaign that would be needed to win a referendum.

I really hope that these concerns turn out to be misplaced, that government and enough parliamentary opinion moves behind having a referendum and that Make Votes Count and its allies campaign effectively for reform. Despite being a long time supporter of STV, I’d happily campaign for “AV-plus” on the basis that it represents real progress. If no referendum is held next year, the current calls for reform need not be wasted. Once again, what is sometimes called the “progressive” side of politics is considering actively the possibilities and strategies for acheving electoral reform. A new momentum is building and that shouldn’t be allowed go to waste, as happened after Tony Blair broke his 1997 promise to have a referendum, and then shelved the Jenkins report. Let’s hope it doesn’t take ten more years for another opportunity to come around.

1 comment:

Paul Griffiths said...

(1) Of course, STV is not "perfectly" proportional either. But it does give voters greater choice.

(2) IIRC, AV+ was predicated on keeping roughly the same total number of MPs. Introducing PR while reducing the number of MPs would be even harder to sell.