At the ‘we don’t want to oust Gordon’ PLP meeting earlier this week many words were spoken about how the Prime Minister had learnt the lessons of the last week, how he was now going to be better at listening. So what news slips out today? That the Prime Minister is actively contemplating proposing the Alternative Vote system as an alternative to First Past the Post as the system to elect Westminster MPs. Why, oh, why has this been announced now? We’re barely 48 hours after a terrible election defeat for Labour – an announcement like this looks terrible tactically as Mike Smithson points out. Which members of the PLP were aware of, or indeed back, Gordon’s plan?
Then there’s the issue of AV itself – on balance it’s a little better than FPTP but it still can come up with very skewed results – Unlock Democracy reckons Labour would have been wiped out in the EP elections if AV had been used. Iain Dale is also right to point out that this just looks like a Prime Minister wanting to mess with the election system just for the sake of his own advantage – probably so, although David Cameron is not immune from that accusation too – the Tory leader’s piece in The Guardian almost uniquely contained ideas that would be favourable to his party.
So what should happen?
The scale and breadth of constitutional reform in the UK since 1997 has been unprecedented – see this post for a list of the main changes. But all of those changes have been conducted piecemeal, without a plan or vision of how the UK should be governed. Any sensible debate about the issue is brushed under the carpet with the blithe line that voters don’t care about governmental structures and constitutional matters. Labour might have previously managed to get away with major changes without debate – no longer. The party and its leader are just not strong enough at the moment.
So Brown should shut up about AV, should actually allow a discussion about different voting systems – and indeed the very principles of the UK constitution – to develop. There is no pressing rush, and listening for a while would for sure do no harm.
It’s not clear whether the favoured system is AV for all seats, or AV plus a top-up (similar but not the same as the Scottish Parliament system) as recommended by Roy Jenkins back in the early days of the Blair government. Perhaps his statement later today will make things clearer, particularly as to what else he wants to change. For example, on Lords reform.
It seems logical to me that the electoral system for the two chambers should be sufficiently different to ensure that one is not a clone of the other, so why not stick with fptp for the Commons and go for stv (perhaps based on the Euro constitutencies) for the other. A half-arsed voting system reform for the Commons without fully considering the implications for the Lords would be crazy. Moreover there are plenty other questions that need to be settled as part of a package… division of powers between the two chambers, should elections to both be on the same day, are both fixed term, how both of them handle European questions, are ministers to be drawn from both chambers (or just the commons), can a minister be brought in unelected, as with today’s ministers in the Lords, can any minister appear before both chambers, would there be some sort of age/experience qualification on membership of the second chamber, how can the stranglehold of the parties be reduced in both chambers? Pretty much an endless stream of questions, the answers to which need to be balanced, and a reasonable degree of consensus achieved if change is to endure.
There’s no way this can be sensibly resolved in the current political climate in the next year. As for holding a referendum on voting reform… what’s that about?? for example: status quo vs AV? multi-option referendum? Is the status quo ok, yes or no? Pretty much any referendum question raises more questions than it answers.
Brown needs to be focusing on sorting out the economy, jobs, etc. Success in those areas will have the greatest impact on Labour support at the next general election. Last-minute constitutional tinkering will surely just piss off the voters.
Constitutional reform is usually prepared on a broad political base, with public discussion, and enacted on a consensus basis in the more fortunate countries of the world.
The impression one gets is that neither Labour nor the Conservatives offer much hope for a modern British Constitution.
Since the main parties seem wedded to their museum, although willing to shift a few pieces around, perhaps a forum of experts on comparative constitutional thought could take up the work of a mock constituent assembly in order to present a reasoned proposal for public discussion.
No pressing rush? Ideally there should be a pressing rush, though that doesn’t mean it can’t be done properly. If the Tories get in then meaningful reform will be set back another decade.