Tribune leader, 9 April 1992
Paddy Ashdown has made it dear that he would refuse to give support to any party attempting to form a government if it did not promise in its Queen’s Speech to legislate for “fair votes” before the general election after this one. It is a ridiculous position, and he knows it. The only major party that might possibly introduce electoral reform for the House of Commons is Labour – but Labour is still only halfway through working out what it really wants.
After years of backing the first-past-the-post system for all elections, Labour is now open to change for the Commons, probably to a version of the German additional member system, as its choice of AMS for its proposed Scottish parliament indicates. But, as the interim report of Labour’s commission on electoral systems, chaired by Raymond Plant, made clear last year, the party is some way from making a decision in principle about which electoral system it wants for the Commons, let alone finalising all the details. Indeed, just about all that the Plant commission has firmly decided for the Commons is that it should not be elected by the single transferable vote (STV) system – which is what Mr Ashdown’s party has traditionally backed.
If Labour is moving towards AMS, there is a vocal lobby within the party for the statut quo and a smaller one for the alternative vote system. Among supporters of AMS there are crucial differences, particularly over the percentage of the vote, at regional or national level, that parties would have to reach to secure representation in the Commons. Tribune, for example, while supporting the principle of AMS, would not support a version including a threshold of more than 5 per cent, which would discriminate against Green representation in the Commons. Others would make thresholds high to exclude fascists.
All this is going to have to be worked out – and not just by Labour. For all the Liberal Democrats’ shouting about “fair votes”, they have not thought through how, if at all, they are prepared to compromise on their insistence on STV. Changing the electoral system cannot legitimately be done by party leaders on the basis of a few back-of-the-envelope calculations in smoke-filled rooms: it demands public debate about principles and details and consensus within parties and among them.
By saying that it will open up the Plant commission to other parties and to a wide range of organisations from civil society, and by saying that the expanded inquiry will report within a year, Labour has gone as far as anyone could reasonably expect. Mr Ashdown should stop making demands for instant solutions and commit his party to backing Labour’s attempt to secure a new consensus on the electoral system, just as it did with the Scottish Constitutional Convention.
Jason and The Face
The award of £200,000 damages and the same again in costs against The Face magazine for libeling Jason Donovan shows once again the urgent need for action to reduce the amounts of libel awards. It is absurd that a magazine should face closure just because it has wrongly claimed that a pop singer lied when he denied that he was gay. (Would he have been so lavishly rewarded if a magazine had wrongly claimed that he was lying when he denied he was straight?) It is time for the amount that can be awarded in damages and costs to be limited to a total of £50,000, pending a thorough review of the whole of the law of libel.