If we're not careful, we'll be rubber stamping someone else's choice

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The Independent Online
Suddenly everyone is talking about electoral reform - new ways to make your vote count. So they should. But the talk brought back to me a spring morning in Communist Poland long ago.

You could vote in public, like a docile citizen. This meant taking the Party list of candidates, arranged in the Party's chosen order, and dropping it unmarked into the ballot-box on the polling officer's table. Or, on the other hand, you could be awkward. You could take away the ballot paper, whip out your pen and queue up to vote behind a curtain which screened off the polling booths.

The morning I looked in, the awkward squad was out in force. There were two or three people waiting for each polling-booth. They stared at the polling officer and the plain-clothes secret policemen beside him, who stared back expressionlessly. From behind the curtain came the merry scritch-scratching of pens crossing out the names of the proletarian vanguard.

It was 1961 in Warsaw and the Poles were in fine, bloody-minded form. This was the "Praga I" constituency and the name of Wladyslaw Gomulka, the Party leader, headed the list. Posters and speeches had claimed that the nation's future depended on massive support for him and the Polish United Workers' Party. So what? One old lady had rested her ballot-paper on a radiator, crossed out the whole list, and under the nose of the officials was scribbling in her own candidates. The London government-in-exile? The Pope? The Virgin Mary? Anybody was better than these villains.

Everyone knew it was a farce. The results were always cooked. To give a pathetic flavour of authenticity, a few results were undercooked. The prime minister, standing in Krakow, might get a mere 93 per cent for his list; the list in Lublin, where the Catholic University was, might be allowed only 89 per cent. Foreign correspondents were tempted to read meanings into this. The Poles just laughed. But even though it made no difference, they intensely enjoyed the act of crossing out.

I remembered that scene because voting for lists has reached the British agenda. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are both going to be elected by the additional member system (AMS), which involves a list. The next European Parliament elections in Britain will be votes for party lists - but the nature of those lists has led to a vicious row within the Labour Party. And this week the Government will announce a cross-party commission to study voting reform for Westminster elections. Its brief will be to examine "alternative" and "proportional" systems, and party-list voting is almost certain to be one of the changes it recommends.

Most people in this country are realising that our current system, "first past the post", insults a grown-up electorate. I give only one example: the Scottish results of 1974, in which the Scottish National Party got 30.4 per cent of the vote in Scotland and won 11 seats in the House of Commons, while Scottish Labour got 36.3 per cent of the votes and 41 seats. Reform is overdue. But there is much public ignorance. The Welsh and the Scots have been obliged to start thinking about "fair voting" models (and Northern Ireland already uses the single transferable vote (STV) for European elections). In England, however, the business of educating the public has scarcely begun.

I want to concentrate on the "list" aspect. This is because the Government shows signs of plunging off in a fatally wrong direction. All these three new election systems in prospect will contain a party-list element. The pattern already assigned to Scotland and Wales is the most likely to be proposed for Westminster. It closely resembles the German system. The citizen will have two votes. One vote is cast for a local constituency member, elected on the present first-past-the-post basis. The second vote goes to a party, or rather to one of the lists of names drawn up region by region for each party. Party bosses put the names in order of preference, the name at the top being most likely to get elected. The number of votes cast for each party decides how many "additional members" on its list will get into the parliament.

The European elections, on the other hand, will be by party list alone. The Bill now before Parliament suggests that Britain will be divided into 11 electoral regions, with between four and 11 MEPs each. Again, each party's score of votes will decide how many names on its regional list go to Strasbourg as MEPs.

I have left out many details, but that is the shape of things to come. All three elections - four, if you count Scotland and Wales separately - would give the contending parties a total of seats roughly proportionate to their shares of the vote. So far, so good. But there are also doubts. One, which I won't get into here, questions the prospect of endless coalition governments. The other attacks the concept of the "closed" list.

As long ago as September, in the Scottish referendum campaign, I heard voters complaining about the "list" proposals in the White Paper. First, was there any space for "independents"? The Highlands, especially, have a tradition of electing non-party individuals to local authorities. How would it be possible to draw up a list of independents for the Scottish Parliament? Or would the political parties have a monopoly of additional members?

The second question was simpler. Can we choose whom we vote for on the list? Can we tick a name, or must we take or leave the slate as a whole? Surely it is no democracy just to be confronted by a "closed" list of names, drawn up in order of preference by some party caucus.

This is a formidable objection. It lay at the heart of the recent revolt among the Labour MEPs, when the "Strasbourg Four" refused to accept the Government's proposal for "closed" party lists at the European Parliament elections in 1999. They stood out for more open democracy, defying Labour Party regulations which ban breaking ranks to criticise party decisions in public. They were threatened with suspension, but the row grew so intense that the party authorities were forced into partial retreat.

Last week Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, told the Commons that he would offer two possible solutions: the "closed list", or the so-called "ordered open list". The latter is a compromise. The ballot paper lets the voter choose. He or she can either vote for a party list as a whole, or put a cross by the name of one particular candidate.

I believe the whole credibility of electoral reform hangs on this. At present the Government is heading for "closed-list" voting in all these new elections. But the British public will bellow with rage when it understands what is going on. Germany uses closed lists (with the exception of Bavaria, which allows the "ordered open" choice in Land elections). But the British hold a far more sceptical and disrespectful view of political parties.

Who will draw up these lists? Is democracy no more than an invitation to rubber-stamp a selection by Peter Mandelson or the Tory Whips' Office? Like those indomitable Polish voters long ago, the British will never give up their right to choose between one politician and another. If Tony Blair's programme of constitutional reform is not to be discredited, this squalid "closed list" idea must be smashed open before it is too late.