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Chris Huhne: No reform now means bigger reform later

The pressure to change the voting system can't be ignored for ever. The plates have shifted, but the Tories still won't accept change

Sunday 08 May 2011 00:00 BST
(getty images)

The election results on Thursday were bitterly disappointing for electoral reformers. A modest change to our voting system was rejected overwhelmingly. The people have not spoken, but shouted. Any good democrat has to accept such a decisive response. The Alternative Vote is now dead and buried. When change comes, as it will, it is likely to be more radical.

The problems to which electoral reformers are responding have not gone away and will continue to demand an answer. British society is increasingly pluralist, and the trend to diversity is accelerating. In the Fifties, only 4 per cent of voters rejected Labour and the Tories. Now the figure is a third. Once Labour and the Conservatives dominated our politics. Now Liberal Democrats, Greens,Nationalists and others demand a voice.

The attempt to squeeze diversity into the fraying corset of two-party politics is likely to lead to more and more unfair results. Already, the regional representation of the parties is distorted, with the Tories underrepresented in the north and Scotland despite substantial votes, and Labour similarly anorexic in the south. Both parties speak first to their regional bases, respectively ignoring urban deprivation and aspirational affluence.

Nationally, electoral results are likely to look odder and odder. The last Labour government won a firm overall majority of parliamentary seats with just 36 per cent of the vote, the lowest ever recorded in our parliamentary history. How low will that proportion have to sink before defenders of the status quo confess its illegitimacy?

The No campaign argued that compromise was a dirty word, because parties could not deliver every promise in their manifestos. But there is a word for political programmes imposed by a small minority on the majority, and it is tyranny. Every other democracy in Europe – and every new democracy since the great post-communist spring of 1989 – has recognised the importance of fair representation by rejecting first-past-the-post.

Ironically, on the very day that the Alternative Vote was so decisively rejected, the British party system took another lurch towards diversity with the breakthrough of the Scottish National Party. This is a development that unionists in England, Wales and Ireland ignore at our peril, not least because the one type of small party that benefits from our election system are nationalists that can concentrate their vote in one area.

That is why there was a consensus that Edinburgh and Cardiff should have parliaments elected by proportional representation. Labour wanted to block the SNP from winning a false Holyrood majority under first-past-the-post, but Alex Salmond's exceptional political skills have won him a fair majority even under PR.

This is not, of course, yet a vote for Scottish independence. Scottish voters may revert to the unionist parties at the Westminster election as they have done before, but if they do not there will be a large block of Scottish nationalist MPs in London that will make it more and more difficult for any party to form an overall UK majority on its own.

That is what happened in Canada with the rise of Quebec nationalism, and in the United Kingdom before the First World War with the rise of Irish nationalism. The first-past-the-post system magnifies regional and national parties, and therefore has the potential to accelerate the break-up of multicultural states such as the United Kingdom.

If Alex Salmond wins his promised referendum on independence, the consequences for the rest of Britain will be enormous. Scotland is a crucial part of Britain's eco-system. Every radical government of the modern age – 1906, 1945 and 1997 – has had Scotland at its beating heart.

The Conservative party is so strong in England that our-first-past-the-post system tends to give it English majorities even more often than British ones. Without Scotland, the Tories would have an overall majority now, plus another two since the war. Scottish independence would force electoral reform just to avoid incessant Tory governments in England.

Last week, David Cameron proved that he is a real Tory, because he fell in line with the long tradition of Tory leaders who resisted devolution, votes for women, and even votes for all men. The Conservative Party only embraces constitutional change after it has happened, but it is very likely that his very personal big No will prove a Pyrrhic victory.

The lessons of Irish Home Rule are clear. By resisting even the smallest improvement in our constitutional arrangements, the Conservatives set Ireland on course to the 1916 Easter rising and independence. The rejection of the Alternative Vote, combined with the rise of the SNP, is going to put our political system under unprecedented strain. The failure to release pressure means that the tectonic plates will eventually move further and faster. History shows that the Whigs were right. The world must change if it is to stay the same.

What does all this mean for the coalition? The manner of the No campaign has strained personal relationships, but we have a programme for five years which is no less urgent than it was last June, as we have seen from the financial crises besetting Greece, Ireland and Portugal. We will deliver our part of the bargain. You do not give up on a business contract just because you catch your partner indulging in sharp practice, but there will inevitably be more formality and an insistence on proper procedure.

Such formality in government is desirable anyway. Most of the biggest mistakes made by past governments – Mrs Thatcher's disastrous early macroeconomic policy or her poll tax, or Tony Blair's illegal invasion of Iraq – were in large part due to prime ministerial high-handedness. A big boon of coalition should be the restoration of collective decision-making, which is always the only solid foundation for collective responsibility.

Our tough decisions have had an electoral price. The fact that it was predicted does not make it any easier on the hundreds of hard-working Liberal Democrat councillors and MSPs and AMs who have lost their seats. No government anywhere in the world has been able to tackle our scale of fiscal problems and become more popular in doing so. But the economy will be back on course for renewed prosperity, and we can build a greener future and a fairer start for our children. As growth resumes and jobs revive, so too will our support. This is not the time to waver.

Chris Huhne is the Liberal Democrat MP for Eastleigh and Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

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