Alan Johnson: Labour must embrace voting reform

First-past-the-post is a miserably disempowering electoral system

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These are indeed turbulent times – the economic pandemic spread much faster than the H1N1 virus. We in Britain have had to endure an added dimension, what many in the population would describe as "swine flu" without the flu. Politicians were hardly high in the public's affections before the MPs' expenses saga began, but now, as we stand marooned on Duck Island, it feels as if we'll wait some time before our return ticket to the human race arrives.

But all of this creates opportunity. Neither the banking collapse nor the allowances scandal should have happened; the former created misery for our constituents and the latter added disillusion to their disquiet. It's a miserable way to create a climate for change but advance through anguish is a well-trodden path.

There are three broad areas to the necessary debate. The first is the reshaping of our economy. The second (more prosaic) area concerns the terms and conditions for Parliamentarians.

But I want to dwell on the third, which is the constitutional debate about how democracy works in our country. Political renewal is the agenda of the left. By definition, the right is ill-equipped to do anything other than conserve.

Keir Hardie's founding manifesto for the Labour Representation Committee included votes for women, a Scottish Parliament, Lords reform and proportional representation. The Tories were traditionally against all four. They have modified their approach to the first; have been roundly defeated on the second; and have been forced by their parliamentary leadership to swear a superficial allegiance to the third.

On electoral reform, the Conservatives have supported First Past The Post when they were in front and when behind; when they won and when they lost. Bone-headed consistency is indeed an attribute we should concede to them.

Cameron's Open University speech in May was meant to project the Tories as the change agents on constitutional reform. The proposals he laid out were devoid of any meaningful commitments but, more importantly, they sought to close off debate about the most fundamental aspect of any democracy: how people's votes are translated into political power.

When I set out my view that there should be a referendum on the day of the next general election giving the British people a choice between retaining the current voting system or moving to AV+, Cameron wrote an article describing PR (the voting system rather than his profession) as a step backwards. His defence of FPTP was the familiar one. It allows the electorate to vote "strong" governments in and keep the BNP out.

The first point to make in response is that there is either a constitutional dimension to the debate on political re-engagement or there is not. It's difficult to understand the thought process behind an acceptance that fixed-term parliaments, candidate selection and the number of MPs can be valid and relevant to the situation we are in, but that any discussion at all about the electoral system is not.

To take one specific element, some argue that we need more MPs who are free of any party allegiance. Whilst I am firmly of the view that politics can be cleaned up without the help of irritating self-righteous men in white suits, it's worth remembering that for Martin Bell to be elected in Tatton, Labour and the Lib Dems had to collude to deny the electorate the opportunity to vote for them. Our miserably disempowering voting system is such that the citizen who admires the individual attributes of a local candidate but wants a different political party to form the government is forced to sacrifice one for the other.

The "safe seat" mentality must at least be an aspect of the accusation that MPs became careless in their expenses claims and dismissive of their electorate. Safe seats can exist under any electoral system, but FPTP is uniquely able to ensure that even at times when the majority of the electorate turn against the incumbents, they will struggle to unseat them if the protesting vote is split between different parties.

As Roy Jenkins pointed out in his seminal report, "the semi-corollary of a high proportion of the constituencies being in 'safe seat' territory is not merely that many voters pass their entire adult lives without ever voting for a winning candidate, but they do so without any realistic hope of influencing a result."

Cameron's Conservatives argue that none of this is relevant to the urgent need to rethink the way politics is conducted in Britain. They say there must be no change at all to a system that allows MPs with a minority vote for them as individuals to form a government on the basis of a minority vote for their party after which, fortified by the whipping system, they become what Lord Hailsham described as an elective dictatorship. They say we must stick with FPTP because "you know your vote has led directly to the ousting of one government for another".

Leaving aside the palpable nonsense of this description of our current system, what Cameron meant in this extract from his article is that FPTP produces single party government.

Jenkins tore this argument to shreds in five cogent paragraphs, demonstrating that "in only 64 of the past 150 years has there prevailed the alleged principal benefit of the FPTP system, the production of a single-party government with an undisputed command over the House of Commons".

He went on to propose a system, AV+, that maintains the constituency link, ensures that MPs have majority support (thus actually strengthening that link), would deny any seats to parties with less than 11 per cent support and provides greater proportionality whilst meeting his remit for stable government.

I have argued for the British people to be given a choice. I may not be able to convince colleagues that this should be the precise outcome of the debate on how to make progress on this aspect of constitutional renewal. However, I work for a leader who accepts the need for that renewal, with electoral reform as an essential element. And I belong to a party that could, as Jenkins said, "have the unique distinction of having broken the spell under which parties when they want to reform do not have the power, and when they have the power do not want the reform."

The writer is the Home Secretary. A longer version of this article will appear in the 'Fabian Review' this week

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