Steve Richards: New life and new voices must be brought into politics. And that means electoral reform

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The Independent Online

Look at any opinion poll and discover the following findings. There is widespread disillusionment with politics in general. In particular there is an assumption that the current Government is out of touch and arrogant. Take a closer look and find that the Liberal Democrats at a national level are failing to make headway, in danger of becoming irrelevant again.

There is one policy that addresses these findings and perceptions, or at least has a chance of doing so. The time for electoral reform has come.

I have to confess that I had some doubts when the The Independent launched a campaign for a change in the voting system after the 2005 general election. I regarded electoral reform as something of an irrelevance in a country incapable of running a train service at weekends and on bank holidays. It seemed to me that until Britain's dire public services were properly addressed and we started to enjoy the quality of life on offer in some supposedly less affluent European countries, debates about electoral reform were something of a luxury. My criticism of this government has always been that it has not been arrogant enough, timidly seeking to please the focus groups and some newspapers. There was no need to change the voting system to address a non-existent problem of lofty arrogance.

But in an act of supreme journalistic courage I write the following sentence: The editor was right and I was wrong.

Of course political leaders' views on the voting system are a matter of expediency. Self-interest alone determines the level of enthusiasm. As an issue that commands fickle attention, electoral reform is on the same precarious terrain as the supposedly fashionable green agenda.

In his early months as Conservative leader David Cameron affected a previously unseen passion for the environment partly on the advice of his private pollsters who suggested that this would be a way of undermining the Liberal Democrats. Now when there are some awkward specific green questions arising, such as whether high petrol prices are a healthy development, Mr Cameron is nowhere to be seen. It is much easier to be "green" in general terms than it is to develop specific policies in which people lose out, or at least lose out in the short term.

So it is with electoral reform. While he was in opposition Tony Blair affected a similar interest in electoral reform as a way of moving closer to the Liberal Democrats. But when it came to do anything about it Mr Blair was also nowhere to be seen. He was never that bothered about electoral reform and was privately opposed.

In 1997, Mr Blair had good cause to dump his expedient interest. The current system delivered for him. As he put it to me at the time it would have been "quixotic" to announce a campaign on voting reform when he had won a massive landslide. But now times have changed beyond recognition. The new Labour coalition has fractured. Instead anti-Labour forces are gathering around the country in different forms.

There is Alex Salmond in Edinburgh waving his wand with the cunning force of a prize- winning conjuror. The Liberal Democrats hold sway in some of the northern cities. In the south the Conservatives are dominant, and as the Crewe and Nantwich by-election demonstrated, the party is a perfectly acceptable anti-government vehicle in parts of the north as well. This is the reverse of 1997. Now it is in Labour's interests to become advocates of electoral reform.

I understand fully the dangers for Gordon Brown and others suddenly developing an enthusiasm for a change. It looks desperate. And of course it is desperate. One of the problems with electoral reform is that parties lose interest when they are popular, at those points in an electoral cycle when they have the authority to propose a change. Conversely they become more aware of the benefits of change when they appear to be doomed. Still, that is the unchanging conundrum. A governing party will only reflect on these matters when it is unpopular.

The other danger is one Mr Blair rightly advanced. Indeed he did so even when he was pretending to be interested in reform. With good cause Mr Blair argued that changing the voting system could be an easy alternative to getting the policies right: "We are unpopular but we won't change anything other than the voting system and then we will win."

But there are counter-arguments to these obvious downsides as far as Labour is concerned. Most cabinet ministers and former cabinet ministers have for a long time been in favour of a switch to the Alternative Vote, a system that retains the MPs' relationship with constituencies but would be a little fairer than the current preposterous arrangements.

Even the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, supports such a move and he has not made his reputation on the basis of being a wild constitutional reformer. Eighteen months ago I chaired The Independent's fringe meeting at Labour's conference where a glittering array of panellists from Alan Milburn to Ed Balls declared in favour. Labour was doing quite well in the polls at the time or at least not as badly as it is doing now. Gordon Brown has placed a so far pathetically timid focus on constitutional reform, but at least the focus is there. It would not be out of the blue for electoral reform to surface as part of a wider agenda.

Nor would such a proposal be an excuse for a lack of introspection on other fronts. Whatever else is going on in the bewildered governing party no one can accuse it of lacking an awareness that it is in deep trouble and needs to think deeply about how to get out of it, even if signs of the deep thinking are limited.

I became a convert to electoral reform after reading the diaries of Lance Price, Alastair Campbell's deputy press secretary. Mr Price made it alarmingly clear that the only external influence that mattered in Downing Street was Rupert Murdoch. A landslide government did not even have to listen to its own MPs or cabinet.

Electoral reform would bring new life and voices into the political system. Pressures on the Government would extend beyond the most powerful right-wing voices in the media. It would mean also that the wider political focus spreads beyond a few pampered voters in marginal seats. Such a change would liberate for any government, forced to pay attention to a wider range of voices.

In the current economic circumstances there are not many levers Mr Brown can pull, but here is one. He could pledge a referendum on electoral reform immediately after the next election and promise that he would campaign in favour of change. With a wave of a wand he would change the dynamics of the current political situation and to deploy one of Mr Blair's – and now Mr Brown's – favourite value free phrases, it has the merit of being the right thing to do.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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