Brown's dodgy deal

Stuart Weir
2 December 2009

The Vote for a Change campaign run by a coalition of democracy organisations always had a flakey feel to it. Even so, I am astonished as well as bitterly disappointed that one of its spokespersons - one Wilie Sullivan - has apparently welcomed the Labour cabinet's pledge of a statutory referendum on a choice between two unsatisfactory electoral systems for general elections. The choice is to be between the existing first-past-the-post system (FPTP) and the Alternative Vote (AV) which is also entirely disproportionate. In its long history of use in Australia, AV has consistently produced disproportionate results; and when Democratic Audit and the LSE Public Policy group combined to 're-run' the 1997 election under different electoral systems, we found it to be even more disproportionate that FPTP.

I do not want to take up too much space. However, it is vital for the quality of democracy in the UK that we adopt proportional representation for elections to Parliament. This is not merely a question of 'fairness' between parties. It raises a central principle of representation that has huge consequences for the way we are governed. We live with the consequences of a weak Parliament that cannot stand up to the executive. A Parliament that is elected under PR would have greater independence from the government of the day. Single party domination of our politics and society on a minority of the popular vote would come to an end. We shall never be able to restrain our over-powerful executive if we do not have a fully representative Parliament that can stand up to the executive. We shall never be able to protect civil liberties and human rights nor to regain more autonomous local democracy.

Brown and his colleagues have deliberately decided not to give the people a free choice at their putative referendum, but to restrict that choice narrowly in their calculations of party advantage while seeking to parade themselves as 'the party of reform' and to offer bait to the Liberal Democrats for their support. They do not even offer the compromise proposals of the Jenkins Commission which would provide a compromise between 'strong' (though defective) government and proportionality.

What astonishes me is that the Electoral Reform Society seems to be bankrolling the Vote for a Change campaign. This is the same ERS that used to insist that the Single Transferable Vote was the only true option for reform and that other PR systems were unacceptable. They were too dogmatic then. But have they now abandoned principle altogether? And for what? A pledge from a desperate government that is likely to lose the next election; and that even if it won it, is as likely to put its weight behind FPTP as it is behind the once unacceptable alternative? I trust that other organisations in the Vote for a Change coalition - whoever they are - will renounce this dodgy deal. I would be interested to know whether they were consulted by Willie Sullivan whose comment encouraged the Guardian to write, 'Refomers welcomed the move'. Like hell we did!

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