Andreas Whittam Smith: A dose of cold reality from history

Perhaps Blair could be persuaded to embrace electoral reform in order to dish the Tories
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The Independent Online

There is nothing more difficult in politics than electoral reform. I don't wish to discourage a single one of the thousands of readers who are backing The Independent's campaign. Rather I want to emphasise the cold reality that any movement to change the voting system for the House of Commons must face.

There is nothing more difficult in politics than electoral reform. I don't wish to discourage a single one of the thousands of readers who are backing The Independent's campaign. Rather I want to emphasise the cold reality that any movement to change the voting system for the House of Commons must face.

By definition electoral reform is always against the interests of a sizeable number of members. They lose their seats as a result.

Throughout the history of reform, this has been the major problem. When Lord John Russell introduced the first Reform Bill in 1831, for instance, he read out a list of constituencies which would be extinguished. Out of a House of 658 members, 168 would be in jeopardy. Leeds would be represented in Parliament for the first time, while the notorious rotten borough of Old Sarum near Salisbury would be removed. Were Charles Kennedy to introduce a bill to secure proportional representation today, the effect would be exactly the same. Individual members would know at once whether they personally would suffer or survive.

Finding the key to turn this lock is extremely difficult. As a result there can be a long wait. The Reform Act of 1832 was preceded by 70 years of failed attempts. The first Bill to give women the vote was introduced into the Commons in 1870 and quickly perished. Victory did not come until nearly 50 years later. To take another example, the rival merits of proportional representation and the alternative vote were debated by the Commons as long ago as 1917 but first-past-the post remains in place.

For electoral reform to succeed, it must have become obvious that the existing arrangements are manifestly unfair. In 1892, Asquith, then a Liberal Home Secretary, for instance, could tell the House of Commons that the great mass of women were watching the struggle for the emancipation of their sex "with languid and imperturbable indifference". But by 1916, as a wartime prime minister, Asquith could sneer no longer. The case for giving the vote to women was, he said, unanswerable. "The women fill our munitions factories. They have taken their places. They have aided in a most effective way the prosecution of the war ... I say quite frankly that I cannot deny that claim".

In the same way, the supreme significance of the 2005 general election may be that it has demonstrated beyond doubt that our present electoral system is very unjust.

Unfairness, however, is not enough. It wasn't just the absurdity of Old Sarum sending two members to the Commons, elected it was said by "the landowner, an old woman and a pig", that persuaded members of the unreformed House of Commons and then the hereditary House of Lords to approve the first reform Bill in 1832. It was also fear. The Greville memoirs written at the time are succinct: "The people are unanimous, good humoured and determined; if the Bill is thrown out, their good humour will disappear, the country will be a scene of violence and uproar, and a most ferocious parliament will be returned, which will not only carry the question of reform, but possibly do so in a very different form". In the end that fear, fortified by serious rioting in Bristol, carried the Bill into law.

It was the same in 1867, when the Parliamentary debates for the second Reform Bill were accompanied by huge demonstrations. Likewise when Asquith conceded votes for women, he will have remembered that before the war the suffragettes were attracting 250,000 people to meetings in Hyde Park, that the movement's leaders had to be arrested and that suffragettes went on hunger strike in prison and had to be forcibly fed to save their lives.

While I don't suggest that today's supporters of electoral reform must misbehave, they will have to find methods of putting unbearable pressure on members of Parliament. Reasonableness will not be enough. It may be that further developments in the techniques of tactical voting could have the desired effect. Candidates at the next election could be asked to pledge to an equitable voting system or suffer the consequences of natural voters switching away. By such methods a well-disciplined, large reform movement, could have a great impact.

One further factor can be favourable to electoral reform - that one of the party leaders will see it as an opportunity regardless of principle. This was Disraeli in 1867. Against the instincts of his Tory supporters he embraced reform to defeat his opponents led by Gladstone. When the Bill received the royal assent, Lord Derby said he had "dished the Whigs". Perhaps Mr Blair could be persuaded to embrace electoral reform in order to dish the Tories. It would be a very Blairite thing to do. Otherwise, apart from such fortunate accidents, electoral reform is a very hard task.

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