After the landslide, let's get back to democracy

Now is the time to prepare for the next big election - the referendum to change our unfair system of voting
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The Independent Online
Fewer people voted for New Labour than elected Major in 1992. Now, as the dust clears after Labour's landslide and all the voting figures are in and crunched, yet again our quaint tombola of a system is shown to have procured a result that bears little resemblance to votes cast.

Why? Because huge numbers stayed at home, profoundly cheesed off with the paucity of choice on offer. Afterwards there was much chortling with glee at the many new Tory-free zones, yet in the cold light of day it is not funny that the Celtic Tories - nearly 20 per cent of the Welsh and 17.5 per cent of Scots - are unrepresented.

Now is the time to start preparations for the next election. No, not the next general election, but for the great referendum on electoral reform. The vote will be in about three years' time and that is not long to create a well-financed and professional organisation from scratch.

In this heady week, high on the euphoria of ejecting the Tories, it is easy to forget how things felt and what many people said during that interminable six-week election. There was a genuine indignation against the limited political choice and revulsion at the repetitive sound-bites going nowhere, the head-banging about fantasy budgets everyone knew were nonsense anyway. People stayed at home in their droves, as never before. Some were the disaffected poor, who saw not enough for themselves in New Labour's tilt towards Middle England. Others were angry Tories - pro and anti-Europeans - unable to articulate their vote to their satisfaction.

All that could be different next time. There could be parties to express those valid views if the referendum on proportional representation were won, with a new left and a new right wing split away without committing electoral suicide. (What's Jeremy Corbyn doing in the same party as Tony Blair?)

First, within the year, a commission on electoral reform will make its recommendations. Who will serve on that commission? Will it be politicians and their henchpersons, or will it include a cross-section of interests and communities? Will it represent the interests of voters, or only of the political parties? It will take up to a year to report and then there will be a referendum within the year.

Whoever wins the Tory leadership, it is likely, from what Blair has said so far, that both Labour and Tory leaders will throw their weight against change. But the Labour front bench will divide, with Robin Cook and Mo Mowlam among others for proportional representation. Of the valiant five Tory MPs who made up the Conservative Action for Electoral Reform only Peter Temple-Morris survived and Tory newcomers are unlikely to be of that ilk.

But what Westminster politicians say may not matter much: a recent Economist opinion poll suggests 65 per cent already support PR. By then we shall have Scottish and Welsh PR-elected parliaments, making PR look less alarmingly foreign. Last week, many more voters turned tactical, showing how well they understand our lousy system; under PR they no longer need vote for their second choice.

The campaign will air the simple injustice of the present system in which time and again there is a wide disparity between votes cast and seats won: 1945 - the Labour "landslide" won only 47 per cent of the vote yet 61 per cent of the seats. 1951 - Labour lost their "landslide" with a higher proportion of votes (48.8 per cent) and more votes than the Tories, who none the less won most seats. The 1974 election ousted Ted Heath, although he got more votes than Labour ... time and again the will of the voters is denied.

The unfair mechanics may not matter, but the political culture does and its divisive ethos has held us back ever since the war. Our system binds parties together in unnatural unions with iron bands. PR would be political divorce reform: at last the unsuitably married could divorce and remarry if they felt like it. The SDP's bid to do it without PR was like divorce 100 years ago, resulting only in social exile and ruin. The spectacle of the Tories fighting like cats in a sack, just as Labour did in the Eighties, cries out for PR. How on earth are Tories supposed to vote for a party when that vote might be interpreted as Clarkite or Redwoodian? So divided are they that under PR if they split, the Clarkites might be closer partners with New Labour than with Redwood.

Labour's brilliant strategy made the best use of the system's anomalies, targeting just 70,000 swing voters in key seats. Sod the rest, and not surprisingly many voters were affronted. Under PR, every vote in every seat is of value. So Tories would campaign in inner cities, Labour in the country, each gleaning the last vote they could.

So, what about that supposed unique bond between the voters and their MP. Well, as so many of the vanquished lick their wounds after a life- time of constituency surgeries, that link looks pretty spurious. Good and bad fell alike under the Labour steamroller, and new MPs waxing sentimental about their patch had better remember it.

Labour MPs will calculate the odds. After all during the whole of the Eighties they gained hugely more seats than merited by their votes, and they've done it again now, so why give it up? But contemplation of the past 18 years should propel them towards PR. Never again, they should be saying. Under PR there never could have been the Thatcher years, there never could have been an extremist minority Tory government. If New Labour's inclusive impulse means anything, it must include sharing power with relatively like-minded parties. Only relinquish absolute power and Labour would share power indefinitely.

But their dizzying result may have gone to their heads. They may imagine, wrongly, they can have it all for ever on their terms. But next time won't be the same, those stay-at-home gut Tories will troop back. Most of us are still primitive tribal voters, life-long adherents to our parties, encouraged to stay in our bunkers by the present system. It is a meaningless, damaging tribalism that would be finally broken by PR. The paradox is that PR brings stability of government - no more wild left-right swings - yet flexibility and choice for the voter.

So, now the myriad organisations already committed to PR need to set about preparing a formidable referendum fighting campaign - for it will take time and skill. It is looks set to become a campaign of the people against most of the Westminster politicians.

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