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Polly Toynbee did it

1 May 2005

It was Polly Toynbee that did it for me in her renewed call for voting reform. No more single issue reforms of the British constitution will do. I used to believe that they worked. That if we passed any single significant reform, such as abolishing hereditary peers, or creating a Scottish parliament, or passing a Human Rights Act, it would be bound to lead to overall reform. Why? Because each one was evidently incompatible with the old, informal, unwritten regime. And I put this belief into practise

when I led Charter 88 into the nineties, campaigning for a new overall constitutional settlement.

New Labour proved this approach wrong. More than a dozen significant reforms were rammed through altering the constitutional fundamentally - except for the heart of the fundament. Royal rule residing in Downing Street remained. Only now it was unchecked even by the rotten old informal system.

Tony Blair and his advisors were aware of how, linked together, reform would limit his power. Assisted by a craven, conservative media which also enjoys the privileges of elite rule, no chain-reaction ensued.

The pain of it all is felt by would-be-citizens when it is time to vote. “It should be a joy to vote”, a brilliant young (by my standards) novelist complained to me last week. An even younger first time voter agreed, when I asked her what she thought. It should be, but worldly-wise before her time, it is not and as “all politicians are liars” (a cliché I do not agree with) the fact that Blair lied about the Iraq war does not rule him out as a candidate for her vote.

But many refuse this attitude. Perhaps because they have known the joy of believing that you can make a decisive difference to your country by voting in a new government. As the only political say we have is a single vote once every four years, people don’t want to use it ‘politically’.

So many will object in principle to voting for Blair even when they are Labour supporters, as we are likely to see in five days time.

Polly Toynbee attacked them in her Guardian column for putting their high-flown principles before the need for greater social justice which Labour is seeking to deliver and the Tories will threaten.

She got an angry response. This stung her into a fine polemic. She denounced the electoral system and called for a massive campaign for proportional representation so that Britons never again have to go through the humiliation of tactical voting as many will this week.

But it is no good Polly! There is no panacea that will deliver democracy at a stroke, The existing system will still be fixed, if in a different way. Indeed it is all too likely to bring proportionality into disrepute.

The time for campaigning for single solutions is over. It’s the system as a whole that has to be confronted and replaced - through a constitutional process that itself is open and not decided behind closed doors. We can’t go back to campaigning in the old way. Even when it succeeds, it fails. That is why, as I reported in my last blog, it seems to me we may have to blog for a new constitution.

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