Keeping democracy in proportion

In the second of a three-part series defending the Constitution, Richard D North looks at PR
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The Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, intermittently The Economist, and a spate of articles from the pens of Andrew Marr (this paper's editor), Simon Jenkins (of The Times) and Will Hutton (ex-The Guardian), have all suggested how we could improve the way Britons are governed. The curious thing is that the attempts are serious, but mostly go to show how little need there is for much change.

The fundamental problem the few serious reformers face is that they can only talk among themselves. It is not the subject of discussion in pubs; people do not march in the streets about it; promising radical improvement to the system would bring on yawns, and possibly hostility. Of course, all this isn't a guide to whether reform is needed.

All those who are disenfranchised by the present first-past-the-post system are voiceless in the matter, by definition. Only if a third party holds the balance of power in a hung parliament could they press the case for one of the many systems of proportional representation which would be more rational and fair than what we have now.

PR could ensure that the seats held by a party in the House of Commons correlated rather better with its voting figures. However, there is a risk with most really fair PR systems: they tend to weaken two important and competing parts of an MP's job and relations with power. He (or she) currently represents a party and a place, and plays each against the other. When constituents press for goodies from the national exchequer, the MP can claim that it's not in the party manifesto; when his party presses him to abuse his conscience in some matter, he can sometimes claim his constituents insist on it. Under the systems of PR which most ensure that the seats in the nation's legislature match the nation's voting habits, he may become dangerously beholden to party while losing the chance to play the constituency card. Along the way, more MPs would risk becoming policy wonks obsessing on platforms, instead of local personalities being educated in Saturday surgeries.

Still, it is true that the House of Commons is arguably at a critical juncture when, after a few decades of a convenient if entrenched and occasionally stultifying class warfare, it will present the more traditional scene in which parties become a shifting array of temporary alliances between whichever members could be marshalled into a ministry and an opposite. The result wasn't necessarily particularly efficient, because ministries sometimes changed so often. Anyway, the organising principle of socialism's battle with capitalism, and its concomitant broad-church parties, may splinter. It may seem no more than a staging post between the previous system of corrupt boroughs bought by intensely partisan interests, which served until the 19th century, and the more democratic PR (or even electric plebiscites), which will do for the 21st.

There is, however, a further difficulty with establishing PR. It may be galling to committed third-party members and politicians, but their purpose may best be served by threatening (but never quite abolishing) the existing two-party system. In an age of public pressure groups, they may be little more than glorified campaigns among many. We have seen the existing main two political parties absorb and abandon creeds at will. If class pressure no longer informs their thinking, they have become mightily aware of the need to respond to poll tax rioters, anti-roads protesters and all the other elements of an increasingly shrill society.

Provided some organising principle was at hand - and it might be the degree of enthusiasm for Europe, or free trade (not quite the same thing), or, more likely, commitment to high or low taxes - it might remain possible to run a fairly simple system in which two main ministries alternated, with third, fourth and fifth parties being useful, but never treated quite fairly.

The PR issue is necessarily about number-crunching, and is very boring. There are much less important issues than this, which attract far more interest. There is no reason at all why we should have a monarchy, except that we like it and it is good for tourism. If opinion switched against it, it could go, and be replaced by the Privy Council, which arguably does most of the monarchy's hardest job anyway. The nation is quite capable of sensing its identity by looking at the Radio Times or the Daily Mail.

There is no particular need for a president, with all the problems involved in finding someone interesting but disinterested, dignified but decorous, to do the job. We haven't entirely managed to combine these in the monarchy, which uses panoply and tradition to disguise the fact. In any case, as Bernard Shaw pointed out in The Apple Cart, the previous monarch would almost certainly win any poll for the job.

The case of the House of Lords is a little different in that it is more obviously effective and therefore far more offensive in its anachronism. At the moment it is a body of men and women who are much wiser than most of us (even more so than the House of Commons) and whose proceedings are rendered the more eccentric by the presence of some mostly quite amusing aristocrats of varying vintage.

Taken together (and the aristocrats are not often a big presence), the Lords is mostly rural and traditionalist: it resists anything that damages conventional social mores, and anything that looks like hurting poor people. So that's more or less all right, then. The Lords is only likely to be consistently and seriously undemocratic if the country swings very far leftward, which isn't likely. The Lords are out of step on country pursuits such as hunting, but generally speak out for trees and hedges and suchlike which don't have votes, and do so in a way which many people regard as quite sound.

The main possible reform of the House of Lords would weaken the role of hereditary peers and perhaps usher in the election of new members. This would make the Lords more democratic, but at the risk of making it too like the House of Commons to be a useful corrective to the plebeian house. It also risks conferring a dangerous legitimacy on the upper house, which would tempt them too seriously to mess about with the work of the lower house. In other words, it would risk dreary paralysis because it would introduce a new check, a difficult balance, against the power of the Commons.

An impotent and impressive House of Lords which occasionally produces moments of solid insight and high comedy, and thus maintains the ability to shame (rather than bully) everyone else in the system with a flash of compassion or of heartfelt reaction, is far preferable to any new system for a second chamber which would be duller and possibly less effective.

Tomorrow: Don't blame the Constitution.