Johann Hari: We need proportional representation. But what's on offer will just make matters worse

Jack Straw's electoral reform proposals will mean minority parties still taking power

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Before you read this column, I need you to do something. Drink ten cups of black coffee. Down three cans of Red Bull. Ask a friend to slap you in the face at the end of each sentence. The issue we need to talk about – electoral reform – can bring on narcolepsy in even the most alert people. But it matters, because it determines the very shape of our politics – and who gets to be Prime Minister. Every other political issue you care about starts here, with this.

We have a broken electoral system. It is called ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP), and it is based on a crude principle. An MP is elected if he has more votes than his nearest competitor in his constituency – even if he has nothing like a majority. This means that some MPs (like mine, George Galloway) get sent to Parliament even though more than 80 percent of their constituents voted against them. Fewer than a third actually get majority support.

This runs contrary to basic notions of democracy. The current Labour government has 100 percent of the power, with just 36 percent of the vote.

FPTP could be a system designed to stir apathy. It leaves the vast majority of us piled up in safe Labour, Tory or Lib Dem constituencies, where we are ignored. There is no need to canvass or enthuse us. The only people who matter in this system are a tiny number of people in the dead centre of politics. Marketing men are getting better and better at identifying these 200,000 apolitical swing voters and tailoring everything our politicians say to their whims. If you ever wonder why our politicians all sound the same, or why they never try to excite and rally their own people, here’s one key reason. All the oxygen is sucked out of electoral politics as everyone tries to please this distracted sliver.

It also leaves us with a tiny, feeble menu of choices. At a time when we have choice in everything – I can pick from ten different types of toilet paper in my supermarket, and six different numbers for Directory Inquiries – we are offered only two realistic choices at the polling station (if we’re lucky). With such narrow choices, 39 percent of us no longer bother to take part.

But it goes beyond this: this electoral system distorts the political history of the country. If you look at what people tell pollsters or – more importantly – how they actually vote, since at least the Second World War Britain has been a mainstream European social democracy. Fat majorities of us support higher taxes, to pay for higher quality public services and holding down inequality. And at elections, 56 percent of us consistently vote for parties – Labour, Lib Dem or Nationalist – that we believe will do that. But Britain hasn’t been governed that way. We have had thirty years of lowered taxes, whittled-down spending, and growing inequality, only now being tentatively tackled by Labour.

Why? In part, because the voting system allows minorities to rule and impose their will. The 56 percent who always vote left are split between a slew of parties; the 44 percent who are willing to vote right unite behind the Conservatives. This could well happen again at the next election.

(Thatcher herself understood all this. She warned before the 1997 election that there could never again be another government as right-wing as hers if Labour came in and ensured votes were translated more proportionally into seats.)

At various times, FPTP has been even worse, and made the outright loser of an election into the Prime Minister. We jeer (rightly) at the fact that George Bush became President in 2000 after losing the election – but the same thing has happened here. In 1951, the Labour Party received its largest vote ever – but the Conservatives, with 250,000 fewer votes, ‘won’. In 1973, Edward Heath’s Conservatives got more votes than Labour – but Heath was tossed out of Downing Street. This too could happen at the next election in 2009, which is set to be close.

With a potential electoral abyss waiting for them, the Supporters of proportional representation like Make Votes Count hoped that – at last! – a move towards something more proportional was looming into view. These campaigners want something pretty simple: if a party gets 36 percent of the vote, it should get somewhat closer to 36 percent of the seats in parliament. If the British people don’t give anyone a majority, then one of the bigger parties has to form a coalition with the smaller parties, as in most European democracies – and within our own borders, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

So what would a Britain with a more proportional electoral system look like? We would have a wider range of parties to pick from: are you Green? BNP? The Legalize Cannabis Alliance? Our votes would count, no matter where we lived: the ballots of people on forgotten estates in Tyneside would matter as much as those of Mondeo Man in Middle England. Because of all this, we would be more engaged: the Justice Department’s research found that “international evidence suggests that proportional systems have around five percent higher turn-out than majoritarian systems” like FPTP. It would be impossible to repeat the Conservative years, where Britain took a sharp turn to the right, against the will of the majority. The Tories would be locked into compromising with centrist or centre-left parties, or face being locked out of power.

Our recent history would look very different. In one of his last articles for this newspaper, Robin Cook said that “if we had a House of Commons elected by PR, we would never have had the war on Iraq in the first place” because the governing coalition would have fallen apart. There certainly would have been a much swifter shift to green policies, since Labour could only rule with the Lib Dems or Greens.

But incredibly, the government appears to be considering changing to the one electoral system that is less proportional than FPTP. The man in charge of the review is Justice Secretary Jack Straw, who has loathed and opposed proportional representation since he was a political advisor to Barbra Castle in the 1970s. In 2005, he called the advocates of PR “bad losers”, and mocked them for claiming there “is some fundamental flaw in the voting system.” PR would only produce “mush” and “damage our democracy,” he said with a wave of his hand.

Straw’s arguments consisted mostly of Straw-men. He said PR always produces weak governments that can’t do anything and fall apart at the first crisis – which will be news to the peoples of Spain or Ireland or Scotland. He suggested the campaigners wanted to introduce the chaotic Italian or Israeli systems of pure PR, which he must know is untrue.

To fend off demands for PR, Straw is proposing we switch to a system called the Alternative Vote (AV). When you go into the polling station, you would have to number the candidates according to preference – put a ‘1’ next to the Tory if you love him, down to ‘13’ for the Natural Law Party candidate if you hate her. If nobody gets more than 50 percent of the voters’ first preferences, they knock out the Natural Law yogis, or whoever came last, and redistribute their second-preference votes. They keep doing this until eventually one of the candidates wins a majority. Somebody, sooner or later, gets more than 50 percent.

Straw stresses, “AV is not PR”, and he’s right. It leaves in place almost all the problems of the current system.

There is just as little choice for voters, in reality. If you look at the country that uses pure AV to elect its House of Representatives, Australia, it has even fewer parties in parliament than Britain – just three holding 99 percent of the seats. The small number of swing voters are still all that matter. As Roy Jenkins wrote in his report into changing the electoral system, “There would still be large parts of the country which would be electoral deserts. Most seats in the country would remain safe.”

Worse still, parties with minority support in the country still get to take power. This is because votes pile up in constituencies, and nobody calculates them nationally. To give just one example: in 1998, the Australian Labour Party won more popular votes than the right-wing Liberal Party – but they won fewer seats, so John Howard took office again and marched his country to war. As Jenkins warned, “AV on its own is unacceptable because of the danger that in anything like present circumstances it might increase rather than reduce disproportionality.”

Some advocates of PR are arguing we should support the switch to AV as a “stepping stone” to getting real reform. This is apparently the position of Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg. But isn’t it inherently implausible to suggest we are going to change the voting system now, with all the hassle and (presumably) referendum-arranging that entails, and then do it again a few years later? And anyway, how do you take a step towards something by walking in the opposite direction?

There is still a way out of this. Somebody needs to dig into the basement of Downing Street and find the gently rotting proposals Roy Jenkins drew up in 1998. He suggested a system – glug some more Red Bull here – called ‘AV-Plus’. It’s a hybrid system, mixing the best of both. At the constituency level, you do exactly what Jack Straw wants: you pick a local MP by numbering your preferences. But you are also given a second ballot paper, where you pick your ‘top-up’ party. These top-up votes are then calculated at the national level, to make sure the parliament more proportionately reflects the will of the people. So if the Greens got 10 percent of the vote but didn’t win any actual constituencies, they’ll be given a suitably large cadre of top-up MPs. It sounds complex, but they do something similar in Scotland, and it works.

This was Roy Jenkins’ last gift to British politics, and one of his best: a system that keeps the constituency link, but moves towards PR. If we are going to change – and we must – this is our best bet. Labour should have pushed for it when they were strong, rather than waiting until they were staring into the electoral abyss.

We will only get one chance at electoral reform, for a generation at least. We have to get it right. Electoral reformers need now to press for the right model – instead of racing to be first past the post into Jack Straw’s trap.

You can join the campaign for electoral reform at www.makevotescount.org.uk

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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