Electoral reform: it must be when, not if

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The Independent Online

The people have spoken, and the Prime Minister has responded in tones of suitable humility. "I have listened and I have learned." But we are moving beyond that now. We welcome the Government's reduced majority in the House of Commons. With luck, it should re-balance power a little in favour of the legislature against the executive. The knowledge that Tony Blair will not be Prime Minister by the next election may also restore a semblance of backbone to cabinet ministers. The result could well be more open debate, better-quality legislation and a less secretive, centralised administration.

The people have spoken, and the Prime Minister has responded in tones of suitable humility. "I have listened and I have learned." But we are moving beyond that now. We welcome the Government's reduced majority in the House of Commons. With luck, it should re-balance power a little in favour of the legislature against the executive. The knowledge that Tony Blair will not be Prime Minister by the next election may also restore a semblance of backbone to cabinet ministers. The result could well be more open debate, better-quality legislation and a less secretive, centralised administration.

However, Mr Blair's insistence that he will serve out a "full third term" sounds hollow. The Independent on Sunday does not take the view that a prime minister who has just won a parliamentary majority should immediately stand down. It might not be treating the verdict of the electorate with contempt, given the greater popularity of Gordon Brown, but constitutionally it would be peculiar.

That said, however, the Prime Minister would benefit himself and the national interest if he were to stand down sooner rather than later. It would be reasonable to do so after the referendum on the European constitution, if that goes ahead next year, whatever the outcome. Mr Blair's practised humility at the Downing Street microphone will convince no one unless it is followed through by his actions. His talk of listening and learning was instantly undermined by his declaration that, on Iraq, "after this election people want to move on". Many people watching him must have shouted at their televisions: "No, we want you to move on." If Mr Blair's successor is to renew the Government successfully while it is in office, he or she will need time before the next election to do it.

The success of the Liberal Democrats on Thursday offered Mr Blair and his successor a pointer to the direction that renewal should take. We look forward in the second half of this year, when Britain's chairmanship of the G8 runs concurrently with its presidency of the European Union, to the emergence of a plan to cope with climate change. Whatever reservations we have about Mr Kennedy's leadership, we take some satisfaction from the greater representation in the House of Commons won by the party to which we gave our qualified support. The larger contingent of Liberal Democrat MPs should tip the balance of policy in favour of environmental sustainability, respect for civil liberties and the rule of international law.

The increase in the number of Conservative MPs cannot conceal the fact that their party failed miserably and deservedly to position itself as a credible alternative government. The Conservatives still have fewer MPs than Labour did in 1983 under Michael Foot, and failed to increase their share of the vote by more than half a percentage point. Once again, they ran as the nasty party on immigration, and once again they made negligible progress. How long before they ask themselves if they are thinking what the voters are thinking?

The gains Michael Howard's party made on Thursday came largely as an uncovenanted benefit from vote-switching from Labour to Liberal Democrats. Many members of Mr Kennedy's party may regard with weary familiarity the unfairness of an electoral system that turns a big increase in their support into Conservative seats in the House of Commons. But Mr Kennedy must seize this chance to make the case for electoral reform with energy. Many voters regard a system that translates Labour's 36 per cent of the vote into 55 per cent of the seats with disbelief.

We did not make an issue of electoral reform in our leading article last weekend, because we accepted that the election had to be fought under the system that was in place. But that system should change. Mr Blair once promised a referendum on changing it, and the late Roy Jenkins produced an elegant plan that would combine the best of the single-member constituency system with additional members to make the result more proportional. The Prime Minister should not be allowed to "move on" from that issue either.

We said last week that the mood of the nation seemed to be for the return of the Labour Government with a sharply reduced majority. If that is so, then the nation got roughly what it wanted. But as long as we persist with a voting system designed for illiterates in the 18th century, we cannot really be sure. The case for reform is unanswerable, but it needs someone to make it.

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