Tuesday, May 26, 2009
ALAN JOHNSTONE CALLS FOR PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION - IS HE AIMING FOR THE TOP JOB & COULD LABOUR WIN ON A PR PLATFORM
This debate cannot exclude the central question of electoral reform. But on this aspect the heavy lifting has already been done. The Plant Commission — the joint work of Robin Cook and Robert McLennan — and the Jenkins Report have all been completed. Nothing has changed in the meantime apart from the public mood. We have the mandate to pursue the issue of electoral reform and to hold a referendum on a specific new system.
Jenkins produced an elegant solution — Alternative Vote Plus. This system maintains the constituency link so that voters have a local MP that is directly responsible to them, but it also ensures that all votes count, irrespective of whether or not they were cast in the “safe seat” of one particular party.
Here’s the gist of how it would work. On polling day, a voter would have two ballot papers. The first would be for choosing the constituency MP: the voter marks his preferences (1, 2, 3 and so on) against the candidates. If one candidate gets more than half of the first preference votes cast, he or she is duly returned. If not, the candidate with the lowest tally is knocked out, and the second (and then third, etc) preferences are redistributed until finally one candidate reaches the magical 50 per cent mark.
On the second ballot paper, the voter simply marks which party she wants to give her vote to. All these votes are tallied up and those parties that exceed the threshold (say 5 per cent) get a proportionate number of seats. The majority of those sitting on the green benches, however, would be constituency MPs.
The adoption of AV+ would shift the political focus currently concentrated almost exclusively on a few swing voters in a handful of marginal seats. It would end the perversity of the party with the most votes nationally forming the opposition rather than the government, as has happened twice since the war.
Labour is the only party ever to win under First Past the Post (FPTP) and then use its majority to explore a change to the system that elected them. I recognise that Jenkins is gathering dust because we lost the will to carry it through — but that was at a time when it could legitimately be said that there was no public interest and when narrow party political advantage dominated our internal debate in the Labour Party.
I have omitted a certain amount of necessary genuflecting towards how wonderful Brown is & how well Labour is doing, particularly in the health area which is his responsibility. It is a matter of record that Johnson has been in favour of PR for ages, although not as loudly. The difference now is that MPs have been thoroughly discredited & there is clearly a public feeling for doing something significant to clean out the place. Everybody has always known that the present electoral system is corrupt. It corrupts the pure choice of the people into an entirely artificial majority for 1 of the 2 main parities. This puts power in the hands of party machines & takes it from MPs. If the desire is genuinely to restore power to Parliament I can think of no better way than for no single party to have a majority.
Is Johnson making a bid for the top job - Yes. Even if he doesn't formally challenge if he can get his party to endorse this policy which Brown has so long opposed he is de facto party leader & the title would follow whatever happens. Matthew Parris endorsed Johnson as party leader 3 years ago & many Labour MPs must now be sorry he never tried when Blair went.
More interestingly could Labour, under Johnson win for the 4th time running on a programme of introducing PR - I believe it could. While Labour is trailing in the polls it is because they are, correctly, seen as awful not because either Cameron or indeed Clegg, are seem as any good. I have previously said that Brown is the best person in the cabinet & I am not changing that, or at least not much. Johnson has an attractive air, without appearing as slimy as Blair was, but I have seen no reason to think he is any more competent than Brown turned out not to be. Nonetheless he is new broom & the public demand for a new broom is currently overwhelming so, fair or not, I think him taking over would create a substantial bounce for Labour. Beyond that I think that right now PR would be overwhelmingly popular & have set up petitions to find out. I have proposed 2 on the Downing St site - 1 for supporting PR & 1 for opposing. If accepted they will be on here. Labour would also pick up votes from UKIP, LibDems, Greens & even BNP who support this as the way of getting their own parties to no longer be effectively disenfranchised.
Firstly many people, including myself, would have some doubts that Labour would not break any promise as soon as they got in. After all they have done so before both over their Manifesto promise on a referendum on the Constitreaty & as Johnston mentions, on their previous Manifesto promise of a PR referendum in 1997. With previous like this they would have to think us very stupid simply to take their word on it. I think for this to be trusted the referendum would have to happen before any election & indeed there is nothing so complicated that a democratic electoral system could not be in force within a year - ie for the next election. Moving from the current system to the top up system recommended would only involve pairing existing constituencies & grouping them into regions for the top up. No actual changes in boundaries at all. After all this was quickly & easily done in Scotland & Wales. Since Labour is currently in power they could legislate this easily. Of course this does mean that Labour would not be able to hold the electorate to ransom on the basis of this promise - my guess is that the electorate are not in the mood to be held to ransom & wouldn't believe a Labour cheque if it was obviously post dated but that if treated honestly would show appreciation of such treatment. It is not as if the electorate like the alternatives.
Second problemm, from the point of view of Labourists, would be that the Conservatives might also come out for PR. Cameron's recent call for "radical" reform to "empower" people is, so far, limited to calling for fixed term Parliaments which is a pretty minor reform & in a Parliamentary rather than Presidential system probably impossible because there has to be some system for calling early elections if nobody can form a government. Nonetheless he has generally been ahead of Labour over the present scandal & could well get in ahead of them on this if he recognises public feeling. That, of course, is not an argument for Johnson not going ahead - quite the reverse. Over recent years the FPTP system has worked badly against the Conservatives & right now unless they are about 10% ahead of Labour would be unlikely to win. Their commitment to maintaining this disproportional representation system is either incredibly noble or incredibly stupid.