Letters: Proportional representation

A lot to learn about PR

Saturday 15 May 2010 00:00 BST

Johann Hari's article "This is not what the people voted for" (14 May) omits from his indictment of New Labour failures one of the most shaming of all, namely the abandonment after 1997 of even the pretence of willingness to move towards the introduction of PR.

Our present system never gives the people of Britain what, as a whole, they voted for. The latest election outcome is no different in that regard. However, the accident of a hung parliament now gives an opportunity to break out. In the longer term, electoral reform will be more important than the precise mix of Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifesto policies which may be adopted over the next five years.

Years of living and working in Scandinavia taught me that, if we do indeed move towards genuine PR and the coalition (or minority) governments it inevitably produces, our Westminster-indoctrinated political classes will have much to learn.

That includes how to make the best, in practice, of often complex parliamentary arithmetic, a willingness to listen, to compromise and to co-operate, with an eye rather more to the wider interest of the nation as a whole than, as hitherto, merely to enforcing their own narrower partisan objectives.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg have already made an astonishing and brave start on that learning process, and deserve support and encouragement. Much of the carping reaction in the media sadly suggests that many journalists and commentators will also have much to learn.

Sir David Ratford

Wisborough Green, West Sussex

The writer was British Ambassador to Norway, 1990-94

What a miserable lot some of your readers are (letters, 13 May).

Given the result of the election, a period of uncertainty was inevitable. The present situation has short-comings forced upon it by the undemocratic system of elections. The party leaders and negotiators seem to have been commendably grown-up in recent days. The rest of us should refrain from throwing our breakfast bowl down from our high-chair.

The whole point about democracy is that everyone has an equal say. Therefore no one will be entirely satisfied; compromises always have to be made. This parliament presents the first real opportunity that we have had to obtain a voting system which may allow us to express our preference in a democratic way. That will, hopefully, be in place by the time of the next election in 2015.

For centuries we have tolerated shambolic, unjust arrangements for electing our leaders; a few more years is a short time to wait and hope and lobby our MPs before we can become a true democracy.

Susan Alexander

Frampton Cotterell, Gloucestershire

Lib Dems must tread carefully

Many Liberal Democrat supporters will be disillusioned, and Labour will do its best to portray the party as having sold out to the right; but one advantage of coalitions is already apparent in the policy compromises. Taking people out of tax is surely preferable to reducing inheritance tax for the rich.

Such gains may be short-lived, however, which could be disastrous for the Lib Dems. The Conservatives, having made a virtue out of necessity and praised a new politics, ought not to campaign against voting reform, but surely will do so. If the people then reject even the feeble change that is to be proposed, then it will be business as usual.

Labour is already presenting itself as the only progressive party able to win a Commons majority. After hard times, the voters may agree, forgetting Labour's wars, its public-private initiative and its attacks on civil liberties, and remembering its social and economic achievements.

The Tories as well as the Lib Dems have good reasons to make the new politics work, even though it might produce different coalitions in future.

Peter Robb

London N1

Labour must go back to members

Labour must not repeat the mistake of 2007. Instead of another coronation, we desperately need a leadership contest where the party's future is openly debated and candidates' positions are properly scrutinised.

Policy and communication skills are clearly important in the selection of Labour's next leader. However, there is an additional question that should be put to any leadership candidate: in a Labour Party led by you, what would be the role of party members?

During the campaigning slog of the last three years, it has become clearer than ever that Labour views its membership as a leaflet-delivery and canvassing mechanism – and little else. Political education and involvement of the party membership in policy formation are non-existent.

The campaigning-fodder view of party members is an impoverished view – there's so much more that we would like to contribute. It's also a recipe for running the Labour Party into the ground. It is natural that party leaders should want to extend their control over policy-making. However, when the party leadership runs out of ideas, there are no independent policy-formation structures to supply fresh direction and impetus.

Brown's tenure began with inaction. This might have been avoided if the Labour Party had inclusive mechanisms of policy formation to prod the leadership into action.

A leadership contest would provide a good opportunity to debate important issues facing Labour. Let's not waste it.

Dr Ben Ferrett

Rugby, Warwickshire

Power to the patricians

If the more encrusted members of the Conservative Party don't realise what a cunning stunt David Cameron has pulled, then it really does deserve its reputation for stupidity.

He's neutralised the Liberal Democrats, and he's guaranteed a five-year term for an administration which will use that time to re-draw constituency boundaries so that Labour (in whatever form) will never be elected again.

Power has at last resorted to the hands of the patrician chosen. The architects of the Great Reform Act must be turning cartwheels in their graves.

Michael Rosenthal

Banbury, Oxfordshire

Since David Cameron's modernising arrival on the Conservative scene he has been viewed by many on the right of the party as a cuckoo in the nest, exasperatedly tolerated only in the pursuit of a return to power.

I do believe that they are now about to see just how many more of their cherished old ideas the new Prime Minister will kick out of it now that the nest is shared by that Liberal Democrat bird of liberty.

John Haran

Leigh-on-Sea, Essex

Inclusive for some

The new Attorney General, Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer were all at Magdalen, along with two other ministers and three more MPs.

At first glance this speaks volumes for equality of opportunity: any white man who was at Magdalen apparently has an excellent chance of reaching the top in politics. On closer inspection, however, one observes that three-quarters of the MPs in question, and no less than 80 per cent of the ministers, have surnames in the first half of the alphabet. I'm afraid covert discrimination is still with us.

Michael Swan

Chilton, Oxfordshire

Jim Coe (letter, 14 May) expresses concern that the new Cabinet is not representative of the population as a whole in its proportions of the privately-educated and of women. By definition, half of the population is of below average intelligence, so I hope that it is non-representative in that aspect too.

Michael K Baldwin

Sittingbourne Kent

The last time that Liberals were involved in a governing coalition was during the Second World War. This roughly coincides with the demise of the Third Trinity Boat Club of Trinity College, Cambridge as an independent entity. The club was only open to "Old Etonians and Old Westminsters". Has the old club found a new raison d' être?

Peter English

Ruthin, Denbighshire

So cool to be radical

Your leading article "Radical new thinking required" (13 May) must be about the hundredth such I have read claiming that radicalism as such is desirable. How can anyone know a priori that the best solution is radical rather than traditional?

I realise that the advocates of radicalism think they are cool. I also realise that members of the London-based pseudo-left-of-centre liberal elite (particularly the ones living in million-pound houses) want to be seen as radical. However, the best summary of the reasons behind this nonsense was given by Baltasar Gracian in 1647: "New mediocrity is preferred to traditional excellence."

Ralph Musgrave


That'll sort out the deficit crisis

During the election campaign we were told by David Cameron how he would cut waste in government departments. So what is the first thing the new Government does?

Of course, it is obvious – they immediately spend money on changing the DCSF to the DfE, with all the changes of signs, letterheads and other documentation that this requires.

This was clearly a real priority in the grand scheme of making sure the budget deficit is reduced quickly. This is a really positive start and I look forward to name changes to various government departments so we can see the Government is taking the financial crisis seriously.

Graham Jarvis


What do we want? Who knows?

Still, in some quarters, there is resentment at the outcome of the general election. Such resentment is based on a failure to see that our electoral system combines a simplicity of choice for the voter with complexity of outcome. Both politicians and commentators are indulging themselves in over-simplifying voters' intentions and trying to tell us just exactly what their votes mean – a desire for a minority government or a certain pattern of coalition or even a second election within a short space of time.

All we can know is that a certain number of candidates from each party were elected.

What each voter intended, other than to help elect the candidate for whom they voted, we cannot know, because our electoral system cannot detect that information.

There is evidence that some people vote for one candidate in order to exclude a particular political "enemy," but our voting system cannot yield that information.

This illusion of intelligence was evident on Thursday's Question Time on BBC TV. When asked whether Liberal voters should feel betrayed because the party has aligned itself with the Conservatives to form a government there were cries of foul from the three panellists, two of them, presumably, Labour supporters.

Given our system, it is often very difficult if not impossible to predict the consequences of our voting, beyond increasing one candidate's chance of election. It is only following the poll that the consequences of voting can be analysed.

Those who, like some of Thursday's panellists, wish to claim that electors voted for a particular pattern of outcomes, or intended this outcome to yield a particular pattern of coalition, base their case on arguments that are as rational as those of a witch-finder general.

To deduce anything further we need an electoral system that recognises more than a simple first preference that may be motivated by any of a number of things.

In the meantime, I must consider rejoining the Liberal Party which I left in the 1970s when I despaired of their seriousness about gaining power. At last they have encountered and embraced an opportunity to share in government, with all the risks and opportunities that this may bring.

Peter Inson

East Mersea, Essex

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