The sad and soporific history of electoral reform

by Alex Hilton

The debate on electoral reform has collapsed under the weight of its own tepid irrelevance. A dishonest and lowbrow No campaign has bested an insipid and directionless Yes effort and we will be left where we started – with a system of government that remains happily unaccountable. This is a missed moment in history and blame can be variously attributed.

To start, Tony Blair reneged on his 1997 promises of electoral reform as his weighty majorities were too good to lose. By the third term, when the old “progressive majority” arguments might have made some headway, Blair didn’t seem terribly interested in the future and may no longer have had the political capital to achieve reform had he tried.

The next opportunity came with the expenses scandal. The electoral reform society at that time could have harnessed a wave of public anger powerful enough to bring down the government and to force any new government into accepting the system had to change. But ERS was coaxed by the Labour factions, Compass and Progress, into  a “behind the scenes” negotiation which, after a number of months, delivered a manifesto commitment from Gordon Brown to hold a referendum on the alternative vote – a system ERS didn’t want – if he won the general election, which seemed clear wasn’t going to happen.

By that time, the anger over the expenses scandal had turned partly to boredom, the public becoming desensitised to the crookedness and low level criminality of their legislators. The Conservatives very much approached the general election as an opportunity for catharsis. Their subtext was that it was in some way the government’s fault and that by punishing the governing party, the public would have achieved closure on the issue. That would have been the end of the matter had they achieved a majority in 2010.

The prospect of coalition revived hopes for electoral reform and the Lib Dems were offered AV without plebiscite by Brown and a binding referendum on AV by Cameron. Though it wasn’t even an electoral system they wanted, they felt that coalition with the Conservatives was the only viable option and that if they pushed for a preferred system, the single transferrable vote, for example, they would be accused of using the upheaval for their own self interest. In short, they took a knife to a gunfight and left the negotiations with very little worth having, seemingly grateful just to have been invited.

The various groups pushing for reform then had to unify to campaign for a system they didn’t want, but while they were doing so, Labour was spending five months tortuously electing a new leader.

During the Labour leadership campaign, all the contenders backed the AV system, some more enthusiastically than others. Confused as it was with the on-going election post mortem, the issue was already in train in Parliament and government before anyone was prepared to show anything like leadership on the issue. Any one of the aspiring leaders, or indeed Harriet Harman as acting leader, could have pressed for the referendum to include a further, better, option, perhaps that of STV; but none of them was prepared to do so, not least because going to the Parliamentary Labour party offering a system that would really end safe seats would reduce MP support in the leadership election itself.

As 2011 began and the referendum campaign developed, the people of Britain were faced with the option of voting for a system so compromised that even its supporters were ambivalent. Our entire political system, left, right and centre, through cowardice or through calculation, ensured that the only reform available was one that has only very little to offer.

It seems likely the country will vote no, if it votes at all. And then those who rule us can go back to ruling, and the rest of us can go back to sleep. Maybe we’re the ones to blame.

Alex Hilton is a former councillor and Parliamentary candidate and was the original Labour blogger.


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9 Responses to “The sad and soporific history of electoral reform”

  1. I understood that Blair promised to look into electoral reform? Lord Jenkins produced a report which faced at least two ways and nine gained enough support in the PLP to be advanced into legislation

    To be fair Blair brought in more constitutional reforms than you could shake a stick at and incorporating electoral systems which vary somewhat

    A defeat for AV this time will likely increase support for PR of some sort

  2. Mike says:

    ‘the Lib Dems were offered AV without plebiscite by Brown’

    No they weren’t, that was a lie- either Clegg lied to Cameron to get more out of him or Cameron lied to the Tories in order to get them to agree.

  3. paul barker says:

    By my count there are about 420 MPs backing NO & 140 going for YES. That is the problem right there, a Referendum on AV was the very most that could be got through The HoC & even that needed a lot of arm-twisting. Its the sheer weight of self-interest that left us where we are.

  4. Robert says:

    I can agree with most of this, and will not be bothering to vote for the AV, and I doubt I would have even if the whole world said yes, it’s not PR.

    Then again will I bother voting for the local elections this time around, I’ve been voting since the 1960’s I’ve done my bit.

  5. David Vincent says:

    Just goes to show how truly corrupt parliamentary democracy is. The real answer is sweep it into the dudtbin of history. Peoples assemblies are the way forward.

  6. David says:

    Can’t the post-mortems and recriminations wait until *after* the referendum? Whatever the polls show, writing off the result at this stage is hardly helpful.

  7. AnneJGP says:

    Surely, Alex said it all in that first sentence: tepid irrelevance.

    An FPTP/AV referendum simply misses the point. It’s an answer to a question no-one’s asking.

    I think the point is that our current system of representation served us well enough in previous times, but times change: so what do we need from parliamentary representation going forward?

    When we’ve had the public discussion of that question, we may well find that our answer requires a different voting system as part of the new package.

    What we need from our present representatives and from the media is a willingness to tackle the subject of Parliamentary Representation for the 21st Century in a reasonably detached and non-adversarial manner. Educate people, get them interested, over a fairly long time-scale. Grown-up politics – a pipe-dream, I’m afraid.

  8. john reid says:

    I’d gues about 30% of teh No campaign would like PR adn 92% of the YEs campaign would, so if the No campaign only win by about 15% that means that about 50% of the lectorate want PR, i’ll still vote for av ,but LAobur should have a PR referendum in its manifesot

  9. Phil Hunt says:

    Robert: I will not be bothering to vote for the AV […] it’s not PR

    Nor is FPTP, of course. We have a choice between two systems, neither of which is PR. So we can’t use the fact that one isn’t PR as an argument against it.

    I will be voting AV, because it leads to a candidate being elected whose views are more similar to the views of the electorate than FPTP does. Why? Consider a policy P. Under FPTP, if most voters prefer P, and vote for it by voting fro a pro-P candidate, an anti-P candidate might still win. But under AV, if most voters prefer P, and vote for it by preferring all pro-P candidates to all anti-P candidates, then a pro-P candidate is certain to win.

    This is true whatever P is, of course. P could by PR, for example. So under AV, it will be a lot easier for the voters to elect a pro-PR MP, provided that a majority of them want to.

    an insipid and directionless Yes effort

    That’s true! There have been some good pro-AV arguments, but not by the official campaign, e.g. this and this.

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