Open Letter to Tristram Hunt MP

The historian of Engels and the English Civil War has become a Labour MP with an interest in constitutional reform. But what kind of interest?
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
27 July 2010

Dear Tristram,

I'm recently back from a working vacation in Greece and catching up came across your article of the 19 July in the Guardian. This follows on from your participating in questioning Nick Clegg when he appeared before the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform chaired by Graham Allen. Guy wrote up the encounter in OurKingdom. From his account, you raised the game as one would hope from a serious historian and a public intellectual.

But your article made me think, "Here we go again". So I'm writing you an open letter in the hope you will reply and engage with the issue of how politics is conducted in this country and the need for Labour to be different. Corruption starts in the smallest ways, deviousness creeps towards dishonesty and before you know it you become one of the chaps playing the game of entitlement and cheating the voters, as we see it, however honourable your motives.

The thrust of your article is that the Coalition's "rush to reform constituency boundaries" will be "at the cost of disenfranchising millions". You compare this with the cheating and gerrymandering of Florida. Now on a minor point I'm not sure that the Coalition isn't shooting itself in the foot. After all, if it draws equal sized constituencies based on the existing electoral register this will mean many urban Labour MPs having larger constituencies, as you describe, as the young and poor tend not to register. But on the other hand, once the borders have been drawn this gives Labour the opportunity to make an effort and register them and this could give you an advantage. 

But this is to enter the game you are playing which it seems to me is profoundly misconcieved to the point of cheating on democracy. At present Labour has a built in advantage of between 5 and 7 points. Had Labour got as many votes as the Tories in the election in May and the Tories as many as Labour, you'd have had a parliamentary majority of at least thirty seats or more and no need for a coalition. Indeed, in 2005, notoriously, Labour won an outright majority on less than 35 per cent of the votes.

This cannot be right, can it? It isn't democratic, is it? Surely you have to start anydiscussion of the existing electoral system by recognising, modestly and honestly, that it is distorted and unfair. I'm not talking about whether first-past-the-post should be reformed or not. There have been times when it delivered equally for both the main parties. It no longer does so. It simply isn't democratic. The Florida election that George Bush stole from Al Gore in 2000 was at least close. No one has suggested that Gore had a seven percent lead taken from him. But this is what the existing electoral arrangements do in the UK.

You say the Coalition's intention "is a gerrymandered electoral map, assembled in the hope of de-legitimising Labour voters". But do you deny that the present arrangement has the effect of being a gerrymandered electoral map that deligitimises Tory voters?

Surely, in any debate with the government on the electoral system where you try and poke it in the eye for behaving badly, if you are an honest democrat, you have to also state that the way votes are currently distributed is wrong and must be reformed.

Even if this reminds us that Labour talked about making the voting system fairer for fifteen years but did nothing about it. In other words, please, before you swing into action like an old-style politician bashing the government, some modesty and a little bit of extracting the beam from your own eye is called for. Especially from someone from whom we want to look to for intellectual integrity.

I am especially concerned that you ground your criticism in this way because you go on to make a larger argument. Stating:

Behind the warm words about localism and freedom, the love-ins with Liberty and talk of the "great repeal bill", [the Coalition's] policy has been relentlessly centralist. For all today's grand speeches, it appears the "big society" is coming to mean an overbearing central state and an unthreatening, de-politicised civil society.

I think there is an important truth to this. Not with respect to its repeal of Labour's dreadful database state and other intrusions into modern liberty, but unless the decentralisation promised by 'The Big Society' is constitutionalised it will indeed turn into a continuation of centralisation under another name.

But who are you as a Labour MP in an ultra-safe seat to complain about an "overbearing central state" after 13 years of New Labour? Where is the foundation of Labour's own open democracy (that David Lammy called for)? There seems to be a note of contempt for the issues of freedom, a dismissal of 'mere' reforms before you get on with the business of power. Thus you refer with scorn to the AV referendum as "a waste" of money and add "but it will at least settle the issue for another generation".

Will it? Scholars should be wise and not trade on their authority to issue edicts. I recall Andrew Adonis, now a Lord, telling me ten years ago with all the certainty of a man who knew his nineteenth century just as you do, that the coming reform of the House of Lords it would be "the only chance for another hundred years". I was very struck by his confidence while I had the view that the system as a whole was breaking down and there was no reason why one partial reform might not lead quickly to another. The same goes for an AV referendum. It might be that whatever its outcome your generation will never bother itself again with the electoral system. Perhaps you now have an interest in hoping this will be so, given you have such a safe seat. But If the voters reject AV, perhaps because it isn't proportional, should this be the end of the matter for your political lifetime?

You can see the point that I'm suggesting: after only a few weeks in the Commons you are beginning to sound like an old political hand, somewhat like Jack Straw: clever, making good points, but in effect protecting the system and defending the way we do politics. Instead, your country needs you to be a democrat and help us become a modern democracy.

I hope you can respond to some of these points as you can bring authority to the cause of reform.

Warmest regards


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