PR: WE NEED A REFERENDUM

New Statesman & Society leader, 18 August 1995

A referendum on how the Commons is elected would give fresh legitimacy to Britain’s democracy. Tony Blair should throw all his weight behind the idea
In a week in which media coverage of the Labour Party has been notable mainly for silly season fantasies about rebellions against Tony Blair’s lead­ership, one story deserves to be taken very seriously: that of the drive by defenders of the first-past-the-post electoral system to get Labour conference this October to ditch the party’s commitment to a referendum on electoral systems for the House of Commons.
With two major unions against the referendum (the Transport and General, and Unison), a third wavering (the GMB) and Tony Blair, never an enthusiast for electoral reform, apparently unwilling to defend the existing policy, the chances are high that the conference will vote for no change. But if it does this, it will have thrown away Labour’s single most important commit­ment to constitutional reform and destroyed the credibil­ity of Blair’s claims that he and his party are now commit­ted to pluralism. For his own sake, Blair must think again – and make it clear that he wants the existing policy to remain.
Of course, it is easy to see why opponents of a referen­dum – all of them, without exception, opponents of elec­toral reform – have made their push this summer to have the policy reversed. Many in the Labour Party accepted a referendum on electoral systems as a way of keeping the Liberal Democrats sweet, when it looked as if Labour would need tactical votes from Lib Dem support­ers, or even coalition with Paddy Ashdown, to have any hope of power. Today, Labour is riding high in the opin­ion polls, and it looks likely that it will be able to form a government on its own. Sops to the Lib Dems seem more a diversion than a necessity.
It could look very different at the time of the next general election. As Blair himself has said repeatedly, a massive opinion-poll lead nearly two years before an election guarantees nothing. Labour could yet find that it needs Lib Dem supporters’ tactical votes or Lib Dem MPs’ backing in the Commons, in which case a decision now to ditch a referendum on electoral systems will look asinine at best (as indeed will Peter Mandelson’s  Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election campaign).
There’s also the small matter of what dropping the referendum policy will do to Labour between now and the election. John Smith adopted it as a compromise to wind up the Plant commission on electoral systems and prevent a long and bloody internecine conflict between electoral reformers and opponents of change – and up to now it has worked a treat. If conference votes to abandon it, the least that can be expected is widespread (and justifi­able) resentment among the reformers. That is not something to be dismissed lightly – according to the most recent survey by Patrick Seyd and Paul Whiteley of Sheffield University, two-thirds of Labour’s new mem­bers are in favour of electoral reform and only a fifth are against it.
But enough of realpolitik. The most important reason for supporting a referendum on electoral systems for the Commons is not that it facilitates pre-election Lib-Lab cooperation (welcome although that would be) or that it prevents acrimonious rows inside the Labour Party. Rather it is that a referendum would give the British people the chance our democracy needs to decide the sort of polity in which we live – and thus the chance to con­sign the winner-takes-all tribalism of first-past-the-post to the proverbial dustbin of history.
Put bluntly, the legitimacy of Britain’s democratic sys­tem needs to be re-established. Popular disenchantment with the political process, particularly among the young, is at an all-time high. Politicians increasingly are seen as untrustworthy and venal, while the system is more and more viewed as remote and irrelevant.
It may well be true, as the defenders of the status quo argue, that most people care more about jobs, housing and the health service than about the electoral system, but that is beside the point. It is only when the people have a direct say in determining the basic rules of our democratic process that it will regain the popular support it needs to thrive.
In this sense, the holding of a referendum is more important than its outcome. NSS is a long-standing supporter of the German-style additional-member system of proportional representation: we would of course campaign vigorously for its adoption, and for an end to first-past-the-post, in a referendum campaign. But if the status quo won, we would have no choice but to enthusiastically embrace the people’s choice.
The first question that must be asked of the cabal trying to get Labour to ditch a referendum is not why they so like the present system, but why they don’t want to let the people decide.
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