Leading article: If Blair has a plan for electoral reform, he should let us know

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair's maidenly modesty on electoral reform sits ill with his talk of "tough choices". He, or sources close to him, have let it be known that he is leaning towards the Alternative Vote in elections to the Westminster Parliament. That cumbersome phraseology is necessary, since the Government has unembarrassedly announced it favours proportional representation in the Scottish and Welsh assemblies. Any indication that Mr Blair is overcoming his doubts on the subject of general electoral reform is welcome. But a more forthright approach is needed. For example, publishing a timetable would at least permit reform in the House of Commons to be aligned with reform of the House of Lords.

Similarly, it would be good to see some sign that the rich experimental evidence from the proportional systems about to be introduced in Scotland and Wales (and London?) and the forthcoming European parliamentary contest will be compared and evaluated by someone at the centre.

Electoral method matters. Yes, this is a subject which excites political anoraks, but it is important to register that "alternative votes" are not necessarily a way of ensuring a fairer representation of public opinion in the legislature. They do ensure a fairer procedure for choosing representatives in any given constituency - anything that increases the sum of fairness in our democracy must win approval on that count at least. But there are some who seem to believe that electoral reform is a goal in itself. No: elections are a means. What matters is that the decisions taken by the legislature are fully representative and that they are taken in conditions of maximum trust between government and governed. It also matters that the executive is formed from the group most broadly supported by the populace. We believe that proportional representation is likely to ensure both those overlapping goals.

How to get from here to there? Labour is due soon to announce that the commission it has promised will come up with a recommendation for voting reform. A candidate to head that body is Lord Jenkins, the Liberal Democrat panjandrum who, it is said, might approve the Alternative Vote as a kind of instalment, with full proportional representation being implemented later, perhaps in a second Labour term or at some other, further-off date. Meanwhile Mr Blair would maximise agreement around AV.

As a scenario, that has some merits, not the least of which is that it does offer a timetable for change. People are going to need a great deal of electoral education. British voters are conservative in more than one sense, however much they may tell pollsters they think the distribution of seats as against votes unfair. There will need to be a conscious and determined effort to shape opinion around a reform plan.

Timing is critical. The way in which the House of Commons is returned cannot be isolated from the methods used to return a second, deliberative chamber. A second chamber elected proportionally could co-exist happily - and fairly - with a lower chamber elected on first-past-the-post principles or AV. If, however, the second chamber is stuffed with party appointees, the case for a fully proportional multi-member system in constituencies becomes considerably stronger. The essential point to keep in mind is broad-gauge fairness, balanced against workability; in other words, how any reform might better reflect those positions and people who are at present disenfranchised, while maintaining effective government.

Both reformers and electoral conservatives need to recognise that change will be dynamic, affecting the popular bases of the political parties themselves. To say that the Liberal Democrats or Labour "would have done better" had the 1997 general election been held under PR is meaningless. No one knows what the consequences of any particular reform will be, precisely. Mr Blair seems to be moving towards electoral reform on the ground that it will consolidate left-of-centre government for ever more. But the beauty of proportional representation is that it can break up monoliths. The rats fighting in the Tory sack escape and stand on their own hind legs. And for all the amity in Brighton last week, is it not possible that a harder left perspective deserves political articulation?

Mr Blair is entitled to his doubts, and to time for reviewing evidence, but he must not allow this discussion to be conducted so disjointedly. A commission which is "meant" to produce a previously agreed result is hardly worth having. If the Alternative Vote for Westminster is what Mr Blair thinks is right, he should come right out and say it. If not, then the kind of piecemeal briefing on offer this weekend serves only to muddy the water and compromise whoever is asked to head the reform commission.