Tribune leader, 23 April 1993

The result of the Italian referendum on electoral reform, which took place on Sunday and Monday, is already being hailed by Labour opponents of any change to Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system as proof that they are right. It is nothing of the sort.

To begin on a technicality, Italy voted by a massive majority not for the British firstpast-the-post system for all elections but to repeal the system of proportional representation used in elections for the Senate (upper house of parliament). The precise system that replaces it has yet to be determined. It could well end up as something far closer to the alternative vote, a version of which won the support of a majority on Labour’s Plant Commission at the end of last month, than to FPTP.

Of course, the likelihood is that the referendum will be seen by the political parties as justifying a move to a majoritarian system not just for the Senate but for the Chamber of Deputies (lower house of parliament). But this is where the real problems start for those myopic dinosaurs on the British Left currently crowing about how sensible the Italians have been.

The reality is that, in the current Italian political climate, a single-member-constituency majoritarian system, whether based on AV or FPTP, is a recipe for plunging Italy into an even deeper crisis than it is already in.

It is clear from the opinion polls that, under a majoritarian system, the Northern Leagues would sweep the north of Italy, the former-communist Party of the Democratic Left (PDS) would take the central region and the Christian Democrats (DC) would completely dominate the south. The regional polarisation that FPTP has given Britain, whereby the Tories sweep southern England and Labour representation is heavily concentrated in the north, Scotland and Wales, is as nothing compared with the prospects for Italy under a majoritarian system.

None of the three political parties that would gain significant representation would have a majority in parliament – and none would be able to form a coalition with another, so great are their political differences. Far from “guaranteeing strong government”, the new system would be likely to create a crisis of =governability, with destruction of Italy as a national polity a real danger.

Such considerations were not in many Italians’ minds when they voted earlier this week. The overwhelming yes was in essence a protest against an utterly discredited political class.

Yet a new electoral system would do nothing about the cause of the distrust of the political class, the endemic corruption of the Socialist Party (PSI) and the DC. Although it would destroy the PSI’s chances of winning representation in parliament again, it would actually strengthen the position of the DC. Italy needs not a change of electoral system but new elections to remove the gangsters from office.

The only lesson for Britain from the referendum result is that, when a political class loses all legitimacy, the people will use all means available to kick back. All the criticisms of Britain’s electoral system made by advocates of proportional representation remain as valid as ever.

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