Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 22 January 2010

Reforming the voting system is an anorak thing most of the time – but every now and again it breaks out of the closet, as it has in the past few months.

A year ago, electoral reform was barely on the agenda. Labour had won three elections in a row promising a referendum on the way we vote for MPs, and in government it had introduced different versions of proportional representation for elections to the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the London Assembly. Roy Jenkins had laboured mightily during Labour’s first term to produce a report recommending a more proportional system for electing the Commons, published in 1998. But the promised referendum on the Commons voting system had not happened – and since becoming prime minister Gordon Brown had given no indication of interest in it.

Then, however, came the MPs’ expenses scandal – and suddenly electoral reform once again lurched into view. There were letters in the papers and petitions demanding change. At last autumn’s Labour conference Brown promised a referendum on the voting system to allow voters to choose between the first-past-the-post status quo and the alternative vote (in which you have single member constituencies and mark your ballot paper “1, 2, 3, 4” in order of preference instead of “X”). And last month, Jack Straw, the justice secretary, said the government would legislate before the general election for such a referendum. Cue more letters in the papers and, of course, a backlash against the referendum among Labour MPs – apparently led by Ed Balls, the schools secretary – culminating in a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday that seems to have come to no conclusion whatsoever.

I’ve been an anorak on electoral reform for getting on for 25 years, but I’m afraid I’ve found it a bit difficult to get worked up about it this time round.

On one hand, what’s most likely to be on offer (if anything) is deeply unattractive. A multi-choice referendum with the options of the status quo, the alternative vote and a proportional electoral system would be fine. But a choice between first-past-the-post and AV is not. AV is not a system of proportional representation – and it’s not a step towards PR. Indeed, in many respects it’s worse than first-past-the-post when it comes to reflecting the spread of opinion in the electorate: voting “1, 2, 3, 4” and redistributing preferences means that the least unpopular candidate wins in every constituency. Big deal!

On the other hand, it’s a bit late for Labour to be changing the voting system. Yes, it’s a matter of democratic principle, and yes, I’ve signed the petitions, but legislating for potential change now, with a general election imminent and Labour 10 points behind in the opinion polls, smacks of desperate opportunism.

What ought to have happened is easy enough to spell out. Labour should have agreed in 1994 or 1995 to propose a sweeping new constitutional settlement for the UK in its first term, with proportional representation for Westminster elections integrated with a democratic second chamber based on regional and national devolution – so that, when implemented, we’d have had something like the federal republic of Germany as our political system. Of course, that’s just a bit too neat: there are plenty of things in the German basic law that wouldn’t have worked for Britain, not least because we’ve got three stroppy Bavarias to contend with, hazy boundaries to regional identities in England and a monarchy (at least in stage one) … but you get my drift.

The idea of a “big package” constitutional revolution was first given traction by Stuart Weir, Anthony Barnett and others who set up Charter 88 in the wake of the 1987 general election. They were dismissed at first by the Labour leadership – Neil Kinnock famously described them as a bunch of “whiners, whingers and wankers” – but Kinnock and others gradually came round. By 1993, a Labour Party commission headed by Raymond Plant had recommended an end to first-past-the-post Westminster elections – and with a democratic Lords and devolution to Scotland and Wales solid Labour policy under John Smith (and John Prescott winning the argument on regional government for England in Labour circles), it looked as if a Labour government just might do the business.

Instead, Smith died, and Tony Blair decided that constitutional questions were a diversion. The focus groups didn’t see them as a priority. Labour rowed back from electoral reform and promised referendums galore on devolution. Lords reform was watered down.

What was left by 1997 was worth having, particularly devolution to Scotland and Wales. But the government lost all momentum on the constitution by 2001– both on Lords reform, which was appallingly fudged and then put out for endless consultation, and on electoral reform, on which nothing happened after Jenkins produced his report. English regionalism breathed its last as a cause (at least for now) after a farcical referendum in the north-east voted no to a regional assembly in 2004.

It is a sorry story of opportunities missed – and it would be great if the government could make amends, just a little, in the next couple of months. But something tells me that this is going to be one for the Labour manifesto after next.

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