Monday, 25 May 2009

Proportional misrepresentation

We have today been treated to the most blatant challenge yet to Gordon Brown's leadership of the Labour Party. One of the few members of his Cabinet capable of stringing together a sentence without using jargon has called for a referendum on our voting system. Writing in The Times, Alan Johnson called today for the next general election to be accompanied by a referendum in which we would be given the choice of retaining the present first-past-the-post system and something called "alternative vote plus". In doing so he knows there is virtually no chance of it happening, but that is not what troubles me.

A referendum is a serious thing. In my lifetime there has only been one for voters in England and the same one is the only one in history for voters throughout the whole United Kingdom. It was held in June 1975 and concerned our membership of the European Economic Community. The referendum was held as a direct result of a general election manifesto commitment by Harold Wilson's Labour Party to hold a referendum on continued UK membership of the EEC once his best efforts to re-negotiate the terms of our membership of the EEC were known. The general election was held in February 1974 and the re-negotiation took almost a year (another general election occurred in this time, in October 1974). By mid March 1975 a new deal had been reached and the following month Parliament voted for a referendum.

Membership of the EEC was a very hot topic at the time. It split both main parties then as membership of the EU (an entity those arguing for continued membership of the EEC in 1975 said was never a prospect) does now. Politicians of both parties expressed their views freely and it was one of the most widespread topics of debate. The referendum was held not just because of the February 1974 manifesto promise but also because the issue was a festering sore, a big red boil that needed lancing. One way or another an answer had to be provided so that the country could move on from an argument that threatened to engulf every aspect of political debate.

Today, completely out of the blue, we find a cabinet member arguing for a referendum on something that was nothing more than an aspiration in general election manifestos. The Labour Manifesto of 1997 included these two sentences tucked in the middle "We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system."

The "independent commission" was headed by former Labour Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Roy Jenkins. Labour's Manifesto for the 2001 election watered down the position put forward in 1997. After mentioning that the new devolved authorities for Scotland and Wales, the London Assembly and European Parliament elections had different electoral systems they said: "We will review the experience of the new systems and the Jenkins Report to assess whether changes might be made to the electoral system for the House of Commons. A referendum remains the right way to agree any change for Westminster."

Showing no evidence that they had undertaken the promised review, their Manifesto for 2005 abandoned any proposal for altering the voting system to the House of Commons saying: "Labour remains committed to reviewing the experience of the new electoral systems - introduced for the devolved administrations, the European Parliament and the London Assembly. A referendum remains the right way to agree any change for Westminster."

This is hardly the necessary background for holding only the second national referendum in history. The issue wasn't on the national radar in 1997 when it was a firm manifesto commitment, since then it has even been dropped in importance by the Liberal Democrats who have argued for proportional representation for decades. So, why is it now important? The simple answer is that it is just as important or unimportant as it ever was. What it is not, however, is something to be sprung on us with no more than a year to the next election. The Jenkins report might have recommended "alternative vote plus" and I might have heard or read about it at the time, but it rings no bells in my drink-sodden mind.

I am no fan of proportional representation systems because I believe it is healthier for one party to be able to do its worst and be shot down than to have a series of compromise solutions that satisfy no one. That, however, is not my objection to Mr Johnson's proposal. Mr objection is that the issue is far more complex than choosing between the current system and a proposal Mr Johnson's government has abandoned. If the current voting system is to be challenged through a referendum it should only be after full debate about all the options. I find it fundamentally objectionable that an idea should be brought out of mothballs and presented as not only the solution to current ills but the only possible solution. And why is it said to be the solution? Because of a plea to authority. An "independent commission" considered the matter and we should bow down and accept their wisdom. A wisdom which, as far as I am aware, has not been adopted in any other country. No, it doesn't work like that.

The issue needs mature consideration, not a knee-jerk reaction.


Old Holborn said...

"I am no fan of proportional representation systems because I believe it is healthier for one party to be able to do its worst and be shot down"

Unfortunately, my grandchildren are now in debt to the tune of trillions because 1 in 4 decided to give the keys to someone who couldn't drive. PR would have prevented this and most of what ZNL has achieved.

Roger Sowell said...

Mr. FB, a rather humorous incident featuring Gordon Brown and Barack Obama is on youtube.