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.