Leading Article: One reason for bad government

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN has been badly governed for many decades. The electoral system contributes. It can confer almost absolute power on a government elected by a minority of voters. It encourages ideological politics at the expense of pragmatism, confrontation at the expense of debate, and leaves large numbers of centrist voters feeling insufficiently represented. It is neither just nor efficient.

That is not, however, the reason the Labour Party asked Lord Plant to look into the implications of electoral reform. The party's hesitant shuffle in the direction of reform owes less to concern for the country's welfare than to despair at the prospect of continuing to lose elections for the foreseeable future. Given the shrinking constituency of natural Labour voters among blue-collar workers, the weakening of the trade unions and the coming shifts in constituency boundaries, its gloom is justified.

The system cannot carry all the blame. If the Labour Party could bring itself to adopt policies that appealed to a majority of the electorate, it would soon be back in power. But that would mean abandoning voters who still support what is left of the party's traditional policies. Those voters would then feel as under-represented as those who, over the years, have opted for the Liberal Party and its various reincarnations.

The recommendations emerging from Lord Plant's commission, which the party will consider next month, represent the smallest possible departure from the present system. The supplementary vote system does not produce proportional representation. It merely allows the voter to register a second choice. This has the advantage of preserving the constituency system, rather than switching to party lists controlled by party functionaries, but it can still produce distorted representation. Its adoption would, however, be a step in the right direction.

Had it been in operation at the last election it would have boosted the Liberal Democrats just enough to produce a hung parliament, thereby giving the electorate a chance to overcome its foolish distrust of coalition government, which it wrongly equates with weakness. The argument that strong governments are necessary to push through radical change is correct, but radical change is usually made necessary by the failure of evolutionary change, which is the result of bad government.

Probably it is unrealistic to expect the Labour Party to consider reforms in the light of anything other than their effect on its electoral fortunes. But if it wants the credibility it craves, it must try not to ignore the national interest entirely. The non-party case for electoral reform is that it would assist the political pendulum to swing more regularly and moderately, producing healthy changes of government without the unsettling lurches from one extreme to another that the majority of British voters dislike. A reformed system would be more just, representative and efficient if it fostered steadier decision-making under more effective checks and balances. If the Labour Party can make that case its own, it might even win a few more votes for itself.