Leading article: Broken promises and democratic renewal

Supporters of electoral reform must make their voices heard

For those with long memories, our report today on Labour's plans to go into the next election promising an overhaul of our electoral system will feel ominously familiar. When Labour was swept to power in the electoral landslide of 1997, one of its manifesto pledges was a referendum on reforming the voting system. Needless to say, such bold intentions did not survive the transition from opposition to office.

When a commission chaired by Lord Jenkins came up with an elegant and practical blueprint for reform the following year, the report was quickly shelved by ministers. That promised referendum never came.

So why has the ministerial appetite for reform been reawakened now? This will inevitably be interpreted by some as a last ditch effort by Labour to avoid defeat in next year's election. Yet while there are some indications that a commitment to voting reform might boost Labour's appeal somewhat, there is no evidence to suggest it would have a decisive impact on the outcome of next year's vote.

The idea that this is all about narrow partisan self-interest also fails to take into account how the recent parliamentary expenses scandal has concentrated the minds of all politicians on the need for a rupture in Westminster's business-as-usual approach. The volcanic public outrage over MPs' misappropriation of public money might have disappeared from the headlines but politicians are well aware that it continues to burn fiercely in the country.

That anger has always been about more than duck houses and gardening bills. Those revelations were the trigger, but the vehemence of the public response to the affair was fuelled by widespread dissatisfaction about the remoteness of MPs and pent-up frustration with an unresponsive political system. If politicians are feeling their way to a solution to that frustration, we should welcome that effort.

Put simply, our voting system is malfunctioning. The country is replete with "safe" parliamentary seats, which render the votes of millions of the electorate effectively meaningless. Meanwhile, under the present first-past-the-post system smaller parties have no chance to translate their support into representation at Westminster. We see the baleful consequences of this in increasingly meagre turnouts at elections and the growing alienation of the general public from their political representatives.

Labour has proved a fickle supporter of electoral reform over the years. And David Cameron, despite the Conservative leader's professed desire for a "massive, sweeping, radical distribution of power" has set his face against reform of the voting system. Yet none of this provides an excuse for those who believe that reform would be invigorating for our democracy to give up.

On the contrary, the fact that Labour looks likely to put electoral reform on the political agenda in the run-up to the next election means that public pressure on the two main parties (the Liberal Democrats have always been advocates) is more vital than ever. Labour must finally deliver on a promise it made more than a decade ago. And the Conservatives need to match their reforming rhetoric with serious proposals. Now is the time to impress on all of our politicians that electoral reform is the people's will.