Chris Huhne: No reform now means bigger reform later

The pressure to change the voting system can't be ignored for ever. The plates have shifted, but the Tories still won't accept change

Share
Related Topics

The election results on Thursday were bitterly disappointing for electoral reformers. A modest change to our voting system was rejected overwhelmingly. The people have not spoken, but shouted. Any good democrat has to accept such a decisive response. The Alternative Vote is now dead and buried. When change comes, as it will, it is likely to be more radical.

The problems to which electoral reformers are responding have not gone away and will continue to demand an answer. British society is increasingly pluralist, and the trend to diversity is accelerating. In the Fifties, only 4 per cent of voters rejected Labour and the Tories. Now the figure is a third. Once Labour and the Conservatives dominated our politics. Now Liberal Democrats, Greens,Nationalists and others demand a voice.

The attempt to squeeze diversity into the fraying corset of two-party politics is likely to lead to more and more unfair results. Already, the regional representation of the parties is distorted, with the Tories underrepresented in the north and Scotland despite substantial votes, and Labour similarly anorexic in the south. Both parties speak first to their regional bases, respectively ignoring urban deprivation and aspirational affluence.

Nationally, electoral results are likely to look odder and odder. The last Labour government won a firm overall majority of parliamentary seats with just 36 per cent of the vote, the lowest ever recorded in our parliamentary history. How low will that proportion have to sink before defenders of the status quo confess its illegitimacy?

The No campaign argued that compromise was a dirty word, because parties could not deliver every promise in their manifestos. But there is a word for political programmes imposed by a small minority on the majority, and it is tyranny. Every other democracy in Europe – and every new democracy since the great post-communist spring of 1989 – has recognised the importance of fair representation by rejecting first-past-the-post.

Ironically, on the very day that the Alternative Vote was so decisively rejected, the British party system took another lurch towards diversity with the breakthrough of the Scottish National Party. This is a development that unionists in England, Wales and Ireland ignore at our peril, not least because the one type of small party that benefits from our election system are nationalists that can concentrate their vote in one area.

That is why there was a consensus that Edinburgh and Cardiff should have parliaments elected by proportional representation. Labour wanted to block the SNP from winning a false Holyrood majority under first-past-the-post, but Alex Salmond's exceptional political skills have won him a fair majority even under PR.

This is not, of course, yet a vote for Scottish independence. Scottish voters may revert to the unionist parties at the Westminster election as they have done before, but if they do not there will be a large block of Scottish nationalist MPs in London that will make it more and more difficult for any party to form an overall UK majority on its own.

That is what happened in Canada with the rise of Quebec nationalism, and in the United Kingdom before the First World War with the rise of Irish nationalism. The first-past-the-post system magnifies regional and national parties, and therefore has the potential to accelerate the break-up of multicultural states such as the United Kingdom.

If Alex Salmond wins his promised referendum on independence, the consequences for the rest of Britain will be enormous. Scotland is a crucial part of Britain's eco-system. Every radical government of the modern age – 1906, 1945 and 1997 – has had Scotland at its beating heart.

The Conservative party is so strong in England that our-first-past-the-post system tends to give it English majorities even more often than British ones. Without Scotland, the Tories would have an overall majority now, plus another two since the war. Scottish independence would force electoral reform just to avoid incessant Tory governments in England.

Last week, David Cameron proved that he is a real Tory, because he fell in line with the long tradition of Tory leaders who resisted devolution, votes for women, and even votes for all men. The Conservative Party only embraces constitutional change after it has happened, but it is very likely that his very personal big No will prove a Pyrrhic victory.

The lessons of Irish Home Rule are clear. By resisting even the smallest improvement in our constitutional arrangements, the Conservatives set Ireland on course to the 1916 Easter rising and independence. The rejection of the Alternative Vote, combined with the rise of the SNP, is going to put our political system under unprecedented strain. The failure to release pressure means that the tectonic plates will eventually move further and faster. History shows that the Whigs were right. The world must change if it is to stay the same.

What does all this mean for the coalition? The manner of the No campaign has strained personal relationships, but we have a programme for five years which is no less urgent than it was last June, as we have seen from the financial crises besetting Greece, Ireland and Portugal. We will deliver our part of the bargain. You do not give up on a business contract just because you catch your partner indulging in sharp practice, but there will inevitably be more formality and an insistence on proper procedure.

Such formality in government is desirable anyway. Most of the biggest mistakes made by past governments – Mrs Thatcher's disastrous early macroeconomic policy or her poll tax, or Tony Blair's illegal invasion of Iraq – were in large part due to prime ministerial high-handedness. A big boon of coalition should be the restoration of collective decision-making, which is always the only solid foundation for collective responsibility.

Our tough decisions have had an electoral price. The fact that it was predicted does not make it any easier on the hundreds of hard-working Liberal Democrat councillors and MSPs and AMs who have lost their seats. No government anywhere in the world has been able to tackle our scale of fiscal problems and become more popular in doing so. But the economy will be back on course for renewed prosperity, and we can build a greener future and a fairer start for our children. As growth resumes and jobs revive, so too will our support. This is not the time to waver.

Chris Huhne is the Liberal Democrat MP for Eastleigh and Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker