Andreas Whittam Smith: Change the voting system and we'll change our world

What animates British politics is the fear of losing a general election
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Our constitutional arrangements and the quality of government are, as you would imagine, intimately connected. That is why, when the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, announced this week that he wanted to change the voting system, I immediately thought of something I had read on the same day as Mr Brown's speech: the Audit Commission's findings on the health of children under five years old. It may seem like a stretch to link the two, but it isn't really.

The Audit Commission says that between 1999 and 2009 the government published over 20 policies relating to the health of under-fives. It also spent a substantial sum of money without anything to show for it. Between 1998/99 and 2010/11 the Commission estimates £10.9bn will have been invested in programmes aimed in whole, or in part, at improving the health of the under-fives.

However, and this is the key finding, "this has not produced widespread improvements in health outcomes. Some health indicators have indeed worsened – for example, obesity and dental health – and the health inequalities gap between rich and poor has barely changed".

Why on earth would any sane Government feel the need to devise new policies for the health of young children at a rate of once every six months? In asking this question, we are making an inquiry into how government works and thus dealing with constitutional issues. As a matter of fact, I think I understand what is going on. The only reason for announcing new policies to improve children's health in such rapid sequence is to look good in the eyes of the electorate.

Ministers want voters to see a purposeful government striving hard to lift the health standards of the most vulnerable and assume the electorate will never read the Audit Commission report a few years later that shows that the Government was in fact engaged in a cynical charade, all play-acting and no result. And it is not just the health of young children that the Government handles in this way.

As Chris Huhne, the Lib-Dem MP, pointed out the other day, the Labour Government has created more than 4,200 new criminal offences since it came to power in 1997. This is a rate of approximately one new criminal offence for every day ministers have been in office. And the pace is accelerating. Under Tony Blair, new criminal offences were created at a rate of 27 a month but under Gordon Brown's premiership, this has risen to 33 a month. We have government by headline. To announce that this or that new offence has been given the force of law is designed to show the electorate that the Government is tough. That is all.

The deeper question, then, is why this should be so. Other than central government, I cannot think of any other organisation in the United Kingdom that operates in this feverish way. Moreover it is not only the policies that are in a state of constant flux. It is ministers themselves, subject as they are to regular reshuffle. And government departments, too, are merged or deconstructed merely to satisfy the amour-propre of a big beast in the political jungle such as Lord Mandelson.

The explanation must, I think, include the nature of the voting system. For what animates British politics more than anything else is fear, the fear of losing a general election. No, it is not the exuberance that comes from winning that is the driving force, but the terrors of defeat. For our unreformed first-past-the-post voting system for parliamentary elections very often produces large majorities for the winning party.

Under this pressure, the losing side spirals out of control, factional fighting breaks out; new leaders are tried out and then dumped. It can take years to recover. This was the story of Labour in the 1980s and early 1990s; it was the experience of the Tories for a full ten years after they lost in 1997. As a result, the winner starts to fight the next election from the first day in office. The search for winning headlines begins all over again.

Change the system of voting, therefore, so that majorities are smaller and coalition building more necessary and you may have reduced the acute fear of losing. As a result it might no longer be thought necessary to campaign from the morrow of victory. Nor would ministers feel the need to produce a new policy on the health of under-fives every six months. Unfortunately experts believe the alternative vote system that Mr Brown advocates would not make a decisive difference. But it would be, at least, a start.