A degree of unfairness is good for democracy: When the parties work themselves into a moralistic lather, we should keep a supercilious smile on our faces

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The Independent Online
SO, THE Labour Party is moving towards abandoning the voting system that has shaped the House of Commons throughout its democratic history. Its internal commission has voted for a change that, if carried, would make coalition governments more likely and severely damage the Conservative cause. Is this the break with the past Labour so desperately needs? Or a terrible error that will elevate Liberal Democracy and bring nearer the strange death of Labour England?

Let the argument rage. Only note, to begin with, that this was a small bit of history.

As the debate continues, this shift could yet be frustrated, by the Labour leadership or the party itself. But let's start by trying to clear up the mystery about John Smith's own view of these matters. He has been cast as a Trappist voting-reformer (a second Neil Kinnock, in that) and as a staunch believer in first-past-the-post. His real views are vaguer and more pragmatic: the electoral landscape is not a stark panorama of moral choices.

Instead, the Smith window opens on to a complex landscape of winding roads and detailed questions, dominated by the sunny uplands of electoral success glinting in the distance. Will this kind of reform lead to success? Or that? Can it be sold to the party? The people? The Commons? That is what sources close to Mr Smith always used to say.

('Oh yes?' asks the sceptical reader. 'Sources close to, eh? What sources? Come on, Marr]' Well, I can reveal that these sources are in love with Mr Smith's wife. They pull on Mr Smith's socks in the morning. And then they stare in the mirror and shave Mr Smith's chin. We are talking close sources here, OK?)

So, pragmatic to its socks, what does the Smith approach mean for those enthusiastic about proportional representation - the Liberal Democrats, the Labour reformers, the forces of enlightenment and world harmony everywhere?

It means that all changes must be measured against the single yardstick of: will they help Labour to win?

A shameful lack of principle? No doubt, but nothing in British politics is so humbug- ridden as electoral arguments. A good starting point for any discussion of the subject is that everybody - Labour, Lib-Dem, Tory and, for that matter, the Yogic Flyers' Party - is largely self-interested when it comes to the voting system. The rest of us can talk about which system is fairest, most efficient or whatever, but when the parties work themselves into a moralistic lather, we should keep a supercilious smile plastered on our faces.

So, which system would most help Labour to win? That is the real argument the Plant Commission was having, and it divides those who deem any reform proposal defeatist from those who feel reform would change the country's political map and create a new pro-change coalition.

Here I am obliged to be tedious. One can produce quite a lot of a column on proportional representation without being dull, but the dull bit must come eventually.

Now, the dividing line is between proportional systems and unproportional ones, the latter based on single-member constituencies. The gap between them can best be seen by the performance of the Liberal Democrats, who are grossly under-represented in terms of seats in the present system. At the last election, they won 20. Under the main alternative based on the constituencies, the Alternative Vote, or AV, they would have won about 30 seats - or so a study by the London School of Economics suggests.

Under the two best-known proportional systems, the Lib- Dems would have won 116 or 102 seats in 1992. So, at the Plant Commission meeting last night, those proportional systems consistently received the smallest number of Labour votes. It is a wicked world: the more proportionality (a polysyllable for fairness), the better Lib-Dems do.

But here comes the real Labour problem. If it keeps the current system, or makes the minor change to AV, it will have gone nowhere near satisfying the Lib-Dems, or indeed any vote reformers.

And because Mr Smith and his mates will clearly be trying to hang on to the old two-party racket, his other, and welcome, ideas for constitutional reform will be taken less seriously. This isn't simply about doing a deal with the Lib- Dems; there is a serious fracture between the people and the political classes, in Britain as elsewhere. Politicians who earnestly promise reform, but stop short at their own doorsteps, will be taken less seriously by everyone.

So the Plant Commission, rightly, went for reform. Why not the whole hog? The biggest problem with proportional representation, even if the party as a whole went for it, would be the Commons. It would mean that the current constituencies would have to go, to make way either for large, multi-member constituencies, or for a smaller number (say, 500) of larger single- member constituencies, plus a list of extra top-up MPs to achieve proportionality.

MPs would have to vote for an electoral upheaval in which many would lose their constituencies, and some their membership of the Commons, too. Facing the unknown, no one would know if they faced oblivion. Many learned and noble-sounding speeches would be made against reform - but they would translate into one long shriek of terror.

And turkeys don't vote for Christmas. Well, that is the received wisdom. As no electoral reformers are proposing giving turkeys the vote, we don't know. Anyway, turkeys aside, MPs certainly don't vote to abolish themselves.

So what is Mr Smith to do? The easiest answer is provided by the Plant Commission - the new version of AV, dreamt up by the Labour backbencher Dale Campbell-Savours and called the supplementary vote. He used to be against reform. Then he got the bug, and has spent a year of his life creating and testing his system.

Let us apply the simple test. Who gains? He reckons its basic effect would be to punish the Conservatives and reward the Lib-Dems. Its lesser degree of unfairness would have given them, Mr Campbell- Savours believes, about 45-48 seats in the 1992 election. It is relatively easy to work and keeps the old constituencies, and is therefore sellable to Labour MPs. It has plenty of faults, but these virtues may outweigh them.

This system would be a real change, not a cosmetic one. In the current circumstances, it would almost certainly produce a non-Tory coalition government. Much depends on the number-crunching to come, but by Mr Smith's own lights, he ought to back something that could win the reform vote in the country and the Commons.

Purists everywhere will be disgusted. Labour sectarians will fight it, Liberal Democrat sectarians will sneer at it, and Conservatives will react with public disdain and private unease. Professor Plant and his motley, disunited band have done our democracy a favour.