What Parliament needs at this time

May 25th, 2009

The most interesting point about Alan Johnson’s support today for a referendum on PR electoral reform is why he chose this time to announce it. It can hardly be to deal with the expenses scandal since electoral reform would not affect it. He says that the public is now ready for this change, but he does not indicate any evidence to justify that. He denies it was part of a leadership bid, and it surely wasn’t directly that, but it does highlight him as someone within the leadership who is concentrating attention on a positive agenda, and that can do him no harm. It would however be better if he focused on the Parliamentary agenda that really needs attention – remedying the abject weakness of the legislature in holding the Executive to account. There are several reforms here that could quickly be implemented.


But that is not to say that PR should not be open to debate with the public having a vote to decide. It is undoubtedly true that first-past-the-post produces majorities out of all proportion to the balance of opinion within the electorate, and that in an increasingly pluralistic society it dumbs down the wide range of views and loyalties across the spectrum. First-past-the-post is claimed to produce strong government, but in reality it produces autocratic government which relies on comfortable majorities to ram through policies determined at the top with very little reference to collegiality or consultation. Both the Thatcher and Blair regimes are evidence of that.
The counter to this of course is that PR – but it depends on which system is chosen – produces governments over-dependent on squabbling coalitions which don’t have the inbuilt strength to tackle the hardest issues. However, most Western governments do, with a fair measure of success, operate on a coalition basis which requires a much broader range of consultation than in Britain, and is better for that.
But if, as Alan Johnson seemed to be suggesting, the aim was to make the public’s vote count more and give the voter more influence over the MP, PR does not take one very far. The Alternative Vote system would have little effect except in a very few cases, and the German system combining first-past-the-post with a proportional list system, which has a lot going for it (so long as it is an open list, not fixed by the party hierarchy), would still not give direct influence over the MP. Much more effective would be the ‘right to recall’ in exceptional circumstances whereby a petition signed by a high enough proportion of the electors could secure a re-run in that constituency.

2 Responses to “What Parliament needs at this time”

  1. The Muller Says:

    Mr. Johnson may be attempting a pre-emptive strike on the far right before they get established in the commons.
    If my understanding of Alternative Vote Plus (AVP) as proposed by Mr. Johnson is correct, the voter would have two votes; one for a candidate and one for a party. Seats would be allocated from the party lists based on the proportion of votes cast for the party.
    There is speculation that the electorate may express displeasure at recent revelations by not voting for the incumbents, thereby opening the doors to extremist candidates. Mr. Johnson may be betting that voters will still vote for “their” party, even if they eschew a specific candidate. If so, a referendum at the next general election may be too late to deny an incursion by the far right, but if AVP is adopted it may limit any future “power grab”.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    weak and useless, all this ‘reform’ is
    to be a democracy the public have the right to sack the government anytime they want, without exceptions and without having to justify it to ‘the authorities’
    we either have power, or we don’t
    and if we don’t have it, someone else has got it
    if they refuse to give it back to us, if they refuse to acknowledge that it belongs to us and not to them, and that we are the sole and rightful owners and exercisers of the power to ‘hire and fire’, then we’ll never have government by the people, of the people, for the people, and we’ll never have any government that ever recognises that they’re being privileged not by power, but by the chance to serve the citizens
    until then all we’ll have is politicians being masters, cooking the system to their own agendas and time-scales, playing at ‘democracy’ without having the balls to implement it

Leave a Reply