Tribune leader, 29 January 1993

Labour’s working party on electoral systems, chaired by Raymond Plant, is soon to publish its final report.

Given how long it has been deliberating – it was set up after the Labour Party conference in 1990, produced a weighty interim report in July 1991 and a smaller one last summer – it might seem strange that there is still no firm indication of what it will recommend as an electoral system ” for the House of Commons.

But it is really not too surprising. The implications for Labour, whatever the Plant commission comes up with, will be massive, and the members of the commission know it. The absence of any sign of a recommendation is an indication of continuing disagreement among people with strongly held views. The commission has narrowed its choice to one among three: no change, a version of the alternative vote system and a version of the additional member system. Each has its fervent champions and bitter enemies: none can command unanimous support.

So what is the way out of the impasse? Given the intensity of opinion on the matter, there is a temptation for the commission to avoid making a recommendation – which must also be felt by the Labour leadership. With plenty of other public rows already going on, a set-to on electoral reform might appear an unaffordable luxury.

Such sentiments are misguided. However painful it might be now for Labour to get off the fence on electoral systems, it will be worse if it does so closer to an election. And Labour has to get off the fence. The farcical refusal to spell out a policy in the last week of the 1992 election campaign made Labour look stupid and slippery. It must not happen again.

 So which of the options on offer should the Plant commission and the party go for? None is perfect, although all satisfy the requirement of maintaining the link between MPs and their constituencies and none would rule out the possibility of a majority Labour government.

In Tribune‘s view, the worst choice would be the one that looks at first sight the best hope of a compromise, a version of the alternative vote. It is not a proportional representation system, and thus has all the disadvantages of the status quo in yielding parliaments that do not accurately reflect the whole spread of opinion in the country. Worse, in any of its variants it would mean that many MPs were elected because they are considered least bad by voters, a recipe for ever-increasing blandness in politics, possibly the greatest enemy of honest democracy.

The real choice is between AMS and no change – and here the key question is whether or not to adopt the principle of proportionality as a goal of the system of representation. The great advantage of AMS is that it would yield parliaments that accurately reflect the whole spread of opinion in the country. Its disadvantage is that, as a consequence, it might give small parties of the Centre disproportionate influence.

The status quo, however, will by the next election have given the Conservative Party near-total control of the state machine for nearly two decades, with results we know all too well: the destruction of Britain’s manufacturing base and creation of a low-skill, low-technology economy, the endemic corruption of public life and the erosion of the pluralism on which democracy must be based.

In the circumstances, the risk that the Liberal Democrats might behave as the German Free Democrats do seems one worth taking. Labour should adopt AMS for the Commons without delay.

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