If Tony Blair’s premiership had come to an end at some stage between 1999 and 2003, he would most likely have been remembered for the Good Friday agreement and the constitutional reforms which brought devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and restricted the powers of the undemocratic House of Lords. Sadly for him it seems all this will be entirely overshadowed by his having taken Britain into an illegal and unjustified war.
In the coming week Jack Straw, the British Justice Secretary, will present another constitutional reform bill to the House of Commons, and in a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research on Tuesday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that he plans to hold a referendum on a new voting system before October 2011. He also said he wants Britain to have a written constitution by 2015 (the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta), to introduce a mainly elected House of Lords, to give voters the right to recall corrupt MPs and that he personally supports lowering the voting age to 16.
While most European countries now practise some form of proportional representation, Britain has retained the old voting system with one seat per constituency and the candidate winning most votes in the constituency getting elected, meaning that the votes given to other candidates are in effect wasted. By this system the Labour Party, with 35 % of the votes, won 355 out of the 646 seats in the House of Commons in the general election in 2005.
The Liberal Democrats have for years advocated a switch to proportional representation, which is also used in elections for the Scottish Parliament. But this is not what the Brown government now wants the people to vote over, but rather a completely different system called “Alternative Vote system” (AV for short), which was invented by the American architect William Robert Hare in 1871.
Under AV voters are asked to list candidates in order of preference and the candidates receiving least votes will then be eliminated one by one and second preferences counted instead until one candidate has 50 %. This system is designed to ensure that more MPs can claim support from a majority of voters in their constituency, something which has become quite rare after the two-party system was replaced by a richer selection of political parties. In 1955, when there were basically no other parties than Labour and the Tories to vote for, only 37 MPs did not have majority support in their constituency; today only 1/3 of the MPs have.
But this odd electoral system would not really have changed much. A survey based on opinion polls from the general election of 2005 shows that the implementation of such a secondary choice system would have given Labour 366 seats (rather than the 355 they did receive), the Conservatives 175 seats (down 23) and the Liberal Democrats 74 (+12). A bill to introduce the AV system was by the way passed by the House of Commons as far back as in 1931, but was then stopped by the Tories in the House of Lords.
As Gordon Brown has himself been opposed to electoral reform during 13 years in cabinet, it seems a bit insincere to announce such plans now that a general election (in which Labour seems likely to lose power) is just around the corner. The general election must be held by the beginning of June and Queen Elizabeth II is expected to dissolve Parliament around Easter, followed by an election on 6 May. In order to get the reform through both Houses of Parliament before the election, Parliament’s Easter break may have to be shortened.
The reasons for presenting such plans may partly be in order to improve the image of a parliament severely discredited by the expenses scandal and to point towards new times ahead for a reformed and “more democratic” parliament. Alternatively it may be seen as Labour reaching out to the Liberal Democrats, who are widely believed to prefer a Labour government to a Conservative if the upcoming election results in a hung parliament, which now seems increasingly likely.
In an article in The Guardian on Wednesday Gordon Brown invited “the leaders of all parties to engage positively in these debates and back our constitutional reform and governance bill”. Only to fail to do so himself in the next sentence, where he in a very un-statesmanlike way used the opportunity to take a swipe at the Tories: “So far the Conservative leadership have offered soundbites about the price of chips in the Commons canteen, or proposed changes to parliament that would promote their party’s interests. But every time they have been tested on the big issues of reform – from devolution to the future of the hereditary peers – the Tories have been found wanting”.
The Conservatives replied in kind by going for the man rather than the ball. “It’s not the voting system that needs changing, it’s this weak and discredited prime minister. New politics needs a new government”, said William Hague, the failed former leader of the Conservative party.
Only the Liberal Democrats seemed intent to “engage positively”, saying that they will support the bill even though they prefer proportional representation. Apparently they think AV is better than nothing. Personally I find it hard to see this new system as an improvement on the old.