A Leap Less Far

John Jackson
19 March 2010

John Jackson on Repairing British politics: A Blueprint for Constitutional Change by Richard Gordon.

For me one thing leaps out of Richard Gordon’s interesting and thought-provoking book. It is the difficulty of reconciling the proportional representation of political parties with the representation of “us”, the voters, in a system which can be described properly as a representative democracy. The nature of the difficulty becomes apparent so soon as an attempt is made – as Gordon has done – to deal with it in terms of a written constitution. In setting the scene Gordon remarks “ – our current political system consists of, in essence, a struggle for power between the two main parties. The minority parties are squeezed out so that they lack any effective representative interest. The Conservative and Labour parties are engaged not in representative politics but in power politics”.

The situation is worse than that. It is not just the minority parties that are squeezed out: it is the electorate itself. There is no recognition in any sense of the sovereignty of the people. The power that is fought for derives from the system that is imposed on us and not from any form of delegation by “we the people”.

There is an important difference between voting for a candidate put up by a party because you believe that his or her party, in power, will serve you best and voting for a candidate because you believe that he or she will represent you, as an individual, best. The former, which goes with the party system, justifies whipping and a pragmatic approach to the keeping of manifesto promises, with “representation” of electors being confined to constituency matters. It also justifies proportional representation. The latter, which goes with “independence”, but can admit a degree of un-whipped allegiance to or sympathy with a political stance, admits the possibility of a more fruitful and pluralist form of representative democracy with electors being seen as full citizens with a voice and opinions and not just as members of a constituency.

For 300 years the political class has been determined that we have, in broad terms, the former and never the latter. Those MPs who claim that we have both in some degree are either consciously disingenuous or deceiving themselves. They are complicit in the maintenance of a system that Thomas Paine rightly called despotic.

Of course, no true democracy can accept a system which is entirely party-based. There must be room for the “independent”  who promises to consult with electors and report back on how he or she has discharged their responsibilities.  Even with its faults, our present system admits that possibility – in theory. If “we the people” rebelled against party rule, made that theory a reality, and elected a substantial number of such candidates, it would have a profound effect on the power struggle that Gordon describes and, in particular, would make discussion of proportional representation of parties an exercise in dry swimming. It would affect all aspects of our present constitutional settlement and of proposals to change it. Arguably, any constitutional settlement must keep this possibility alive if only to keep the political parties honest.

How is all that reflected in Richard Gordon’s draft constitution? In a somewhat unfortunate way – at least from my point of view. With a welcome acknowledgement of the need for gender equality he has postulated a House of Representatives derived from “two member” (one man, one woman) constituencies with a requirement that “The method of election shall include a method of proportional representation . . . to be set out in laws to be made and to have effect at the same time as the coming into force of this Constitution”. Gordon explains that his proposals stem from his opinion that proportional representation should be a constitutional requirement and that its precise form should be determined following extensive empirical and comparative research.

I have two comments about that. Gordon has embraced proportional representation because, in common with many others, he believes it produces a more fair result than “first past the post”. In a narrow sense, that is right but, by definition, it locks us into a party-based system and forces “independents” to band together in a “party” of some kind if they are to have both potency and constitutional legitimacy. In so doing they unavoidably cease to be independent.

I have grave doubts about the desirability of this having regard to where we sit presently as a nation and the ingrained and “power keeping” habits of our party politicians. Further, I think that the empirical and comparative research should be presented to “us” so that “we” can consider, separately from Gordon’s other proposals, whether “we” want proportional representation before “we” consider what form it should take.

Rather to my surprise and, possibly to the alarm of my friends, I think that, as part of “we”, I would argue against proportional representation and for some way not of being fair to political parties but of being fair to “us” by restraining them and leaving substantial room for free thinking independence. A distinguished judge said fairly recently in a public lecture that, in his view, the “powers” that need to be separated in any new constitutional settlement must, amongst others, include the political parties. I have thought much about that since I heard the remark made and have come to agree with it. Richard Gordon’s proposals reflect the traditional view of the trinity – executive, legislature and judiciary – as the powers that must be separated and on which our constitution must be based. I hope that the debate his creative and imaginative thinking should spark off will go wider than that.

John Jackson is a lawyer who has never practised the law professionally.  He is chairman of Mishcon de Reya and ‘History Today’ and a director of openDemocracy

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