What can happen when opposing parties co-operate

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The Independent Online
The agreement of the Committee on Constitutional Reform, chaired by Robin Cook and myself before the general election, much of which was embodied in our manifesto and that of the Labour Party, has set in train an unprecedented legislative programme of constitutional change. And now, with the expected announcement of the appointment of a Government Commission to recommend a fair voting system for Westminster, is an apt moment to reflect on the results of cross-party co-operation.

The two parties started from quite different positions. Labour - frustrated by years of opposition, threatened by nationalists in their heartland, scandalised by Tory abuses of power and patronage - recognised the need for a number of different reforms to minister to the nation's sickness of government. We Liberal Democrats had a wider and more coherent ultimate objective - a rebalanced written constitution, with proper checks and balances, to replace the outdated concept of the sovereignty of Parliament with a practical scheme to secure the sovereignty of the people. But the political parties thought it helpful to the securing of a reform-minded Parliament to agree a common programme of step-by-step changes.

The innovation of the Liberal Democrat membership of the Cabinet Committee has been a necessary part of the process of implementing constitutional change. It has given us the forum in which to argue for our priorities, to seek to modify proposals or to bring forward timely and apt ideas to meet problems. Of course there have been moments of difficulty and disagreement; but to have within prospect the achievement of Scottish and Welsh Home Rule, the European Convention on Human Rights enforceable in British Courts, and a nationwide proportional system of election to the European Parliament - to pick out only the pre-eminent matters tackled - is highly satisfactory.

For many reformers, however, the question of fair votes for Westminster is a touchstone issue. It is the key to the pluralist system of government to which we aspire. In our cross-party pre-election agreement we proposed that "a Commission on voting systems for the Westminster parliament should be appointed early in the next Parliament to recommend the appropriate proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system." We are approaching the moment when the process of implementing that undertaking must be put in train.

The choice of chairman and membership of the commission are important to the achievement of a recommendation that will carry weight with the electors. The remit of the commission should satisfy the two parties' agreement, in the case of Labour specifically reflected in their election manifesto.

There have been flurries of speculation from time to time that the non- proportional Alternative Vote would be the preferred choice of Labour to put to the people (an outcome wholly at odds with all our commitments). When the work of proposing an alternative proportional voting system is passed to the commission, electoral reformers would be wise to reflect that it is the principles behind our preferred system to which we are ultimately attached: a proportional national outturn, wider voter choice and, preferably, the attachment of elected members to geographical constituencies.

Liberal Democrats favour STV and will strenuously recommend this to the commission; because it is a broadly, though not precisely, proportional system. It does secure voter choice and does attach elected Members to geographical constituencies. The Alliance Commission in 1982, chaired by Sir Henry Fisher, advocated STV with a few sparsely populated constituencies voting by AV. A composite scheme including an element of AV, but which gives a nationally proportional outturn, could meet all our principles. Electoral reformers must now work for a consensus embodying these principles to help to ensure that the commission on electoral reform will indeed advocate a proposal behind which we can unite to win the support of the British people for reform in the following referendum.

What wider conclusions are to be drawn for the future from the experience of the last few months? This co-operative activity differs from coalition. The participants are not collectively responsible for all the decisions of government but, in respect of the areas of co-operation, must observe the rules which apply to government deliberations. More important, the partners are honour-bound to seek agreements both can commend as helping to achieve their shared goals. The success of the co-operation so far has rested not on aspirations but upon hard-edged agreed policies. It is that which must necessarily limit the scope of cross-party co-operation.