Let's dare to admit that our present way of voting delivered the goods

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The Independent Online
REMBRANDT'S Belshazzar's Feast stops those idling through the National Gallery in their tracks. It is a perfectly frozen moment. The king of Babylon is distracted from his repast by a vision which spells out the verdict on his life: "Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting. Thy kingdom is dismembered."

The power of the painting lies in the way it makes Judgement Day intrude into the physical world of opulence, food and human company. Fate cannot be staved off or mitigated: hence Belshazzar's stricken terror. I thought of that moment when, in one of the several hundred TV documentaries about Labour's first year, Peter Mandelson described his return to London from Teesside airport in the early hours on 2 May 1997. Underneath, one Tory electoral fortress after another was falling. On his way back from Huntingdon, John Major's car stopped opposite the Festival Hall just as Tony Blair appeared for the first time as Prime Minister and the crowd cheered and whooped in wild delight. "We hoped he wasn't listening," Mr Major's spokeswoman recalled, adding glumly,"I think he was, though."

First-past-the-post elections are the Judgement Day of democracies. Last May the Conservatives were weighed in the balance, found wanting and brutally dispatched from office. That was what was so exhilarating about it, and why, whatever becomes of Labour in office, I will always remember the feeling of standing on the banks of the Thames breathing in the air of pure change.

The ability to generate a landslide is a vital component of democratic life. That is what makes me edgy about the prospect of electoral reform to Westminster elections. With Lord Jenkins's commission due to report in the autumn, first past the post may be doomed unless the Prime Minister comes down more firmly in favour of its retention than he is indicating at present.

Elections to the Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly and the European parliament are to be fought on a party list system, variously topped up for proportionality. How can the national procedure, in which a vote of less than 44 per cent can deliver two-thirds of the seats in parliament, escape the rolling tumbrel?

Yet in this month's Prospect, the Labour MP and academic Tony Wright recants his earlier enthusiasm for change. "I used to be a back-teether on electoral reform ... one for whom the long night of Thatcherism was the decisive reason for being fed up to the back teeth with Britain's electoral system ... I am no longer so sure about this line of argument ... I am having second thoughts."

Praise be to the MP for Cannock Chase. He will be the first recipient of a generous award I intend to fund from the IoS's unlimited resources for politicians who change their mind.

But the whole debate has a stale, nostalgic ring for me. When I was a student, electoral reform was a shared obsession of both right-wing Labour and the Lib Dems. I vaguely remember helping impose on college elections something called "weighted alternative vote" which was so complicated it took us all night to count the votes for bar secretary (it produced a bizarre result - as alternative vote systems sometimes do). It must be 12 years since I was taken hostage in a rag-week prank and locked into a Lady Margaret Hall broom cupboard with Matthew Taylor, now the member for Truro. Even then, Mr Taylor's manners were immaculately Lib Dem. There was only a brief, awkward silence before he embarked on an animated conversation about the merits of the alternative vote. Last week, I bumped into Mr Taylor in Westminster for the first time since that evening. He resumed our discussion on the prospects for electoral reform. A dogged lot, the Lib Dems.

The risk of Lord Jenkins's consultation is that it will produce a change to the voting system shaped by conditions and desires of the centre-left in the mid-Eighties and not to the utterly changed constitutional circumstances we have now. Twelve years ago, it seemed to a lot of people on the left and centre left that electoral reform was essential. There were both base and higher reasons for this. The "back-teethers" were not just fed up with the long night of Thatcherism. Although Dr Wright avoids saying it so bluntly, they also thought it inconceivable that Labour would ever again attract enough prosperous southern voters to oust the Tories in a straight contest for the largest number of seats. So the desire for a change was largely a counsel of despair - we simply could not imagine a party capable of winning in a straight fight against the Tories. What we really wanted was a First Past the Tories System.

Dr Wright's second argument - the bit about the higher motives of electoral reform - is the really compelling part. First past the post, he says, was seen by reformers as "the gateway to the larger system of uncentralised and unconstitutional power that has characterised British politics ... the problem with this argument is that we are now getting political reform without electoral reform. Pluralism and constitutionalism will have arrived without the big bang of electoral reform".

Strange but true. We have devolution in Scotland and Wales, and soon in Ulster too, an imminent mayor for London, and promises that this model of local accountability will be extended to other cities. Hereditary peers will lose their voting rights. In other words, an entirely new constitutional framework is being constructed by a government elected under the old system and with a huge majority - the two factors it used to be thought ensured elective dictatorship.

It would be nice to think that electoral reformers will give due consideration to Dr Wright's second thoughts and perhaps have some of their own. Alas, it is far more likely that they are busy inserting white feathers into envelopes.

We are, unusually, on our way to securing the best of both worlds - strong government in Westminster unbeholden to the inordinate influence of a small third party, capable of delivering the changes we elected it to make, but furnished with the checks and balances a more pluralistic and devolved system provides.

There seems to me no harm in a mixed electoral system - one which acknowledges that elections are an inexact science and that their form should reflect the entirety of the political system. Local government elections might well be improved by PR because it would end the one-party fiefdoms which have delivered us bad services and run lousy schools.

But when it comes to general election night, our loyalties are different, our allegiances more intense. First past the post is a crude system, but it tells us rather a lot about the general feeling in the country. All other options blunt the edge of the voters' sword. Sometimes, what we mean to say in the polling booth is "off with their heads". It is good, from time to time, for a governing party to discover this truth unnuanced.

Those steeped in the kama sutra complexities of the various reform schemes on offer are welcome to object that my criticisms are not tailored to each of their pet preferences of proportionality, top-ups, multi-member constituencies and amended Alternative Vote systems. To which I can only say that if they desire more democratic transparency, imposing on general elections a system so complicated that the average voter cannot tell you how it works is an odd way to go about it.