Calamity Clegg Closes Down Electoral Reform

Labour Party

I’ve left commenting on the result of the AV referendum so late because, to be honest, I haven’t had the heart to put pen to paper, or should I say fingers to keyboard.

As regular readers of this blog will know, electoral reform is a cause I have campaigned for over many years. It now looks to have been stopped for in its tracks for many more years to come. I take no joy in pointing out how appalling Nick Clegg’s judgment has been on this matter.

I wrote a post here in September 2009 which is a little prescient looking back now. Gordon Brown had just committed the Labour Party to AV and this became part of Labour’s subsequent manifesto. I argued then that the way to secure electoral reform would be for the Liberal Democrats to work with another party which had the same objective. Quite why Nick Clegg and others thought the Conservatives would not fight a hard campaign against AV is beyond me. There is a touching naivety in their complaints about lies and negative campaigning. Can these Lib-Dem politicians be the very ones who used to put flakey bar charts on their election leaflets inflating Liberal Democrat chances of winning, not to mention their penchant for dirty campaigns when necessary? I have experienced negative Liberal and Liberal Democrat campaigns for 30 years.  Now they’re on the receiving end of criticism they seem quite unable to take it on board.

I remember saying in 2009 that almost every seat the Liberal Democrats won in 2005 from Labour had a substantial student population who voted for them as a result of the cocktail of Iraq and university tuition fees, which, of course, no longer exists. How true this proved.  In the 2010 General Election Liberal Democrats gained two seats from Labour – Redcar and Burnley. Both of these gains were based on local issues and campaigns.

What is more, the shattering Scottish and Welsh results last week show that any Liberal Democrat in a seat with a large student population should immediately start looking for alternative career prospects. Now with first past the post re-established the only question surely is whether the Liberal Democrats lose a half, two-thirds or maybe even more of their current seats. Nick Clegg in the 12 months before the 2010 General Election fantasised that the Liberal Democrats would make considerable gains from Labour. In the end Labour gained one seat overall from the Liberal Democrats.

Nick Clegg’s strategic mistake was of monumental proportions. He could have seized an opportunity to work with Labour to secure AV. Labour made a manifesto commitment that would have seen Liberal Democrats at the next election hold perhaps 80 seats, now it is likely to be 20. That’s a massive blow to any party. I am unconcerned about Liberal Democrat prospects but I did want to secure a fairer voting system. So like many Liberal Democrat activists I am very disappointed at how badly Nick Clegg misjudged matters.

On the Road to Fair Votes

Labour Party

Last year at Labour Party Conference, when Gordon Brown promised a referendum on changing the voting system, specifically holding a referendum on the Alternative Vote system (AV), I was absolutely delighted.  Today the Guardian provided this very helpful demonstration of how AV would work.

My twenty- five years of struggling to get even the very idea of fair votes for the House of Commons recognised seemed at last to be getting somewhere.  When you’re involved in what is often seen as a minority, not to say geeky, campaign it’s sometimes hard to keep your sprits up.  But we have, and we’re finally winning through.

Going that crucial step further, Gordon’s announcement in a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) yesterday that the referendum will be held in October 2011, was the next thing electoral reformers wanted to hear.  The Prime Minister has now said he will have a referendum, a pledge he will, I believe, do everything he can to honour.  It is now up to Gordon to find the parliamentary time before the expected Easter dissolution.

I understand that some Conservative co-operation may be required to make such time available.  However, Gordon has to come out on top on this one.  Having made such a public commitment, he really must see it through and get the law setting the date for a referendum passed before the general election in order that his target date for the referendum of October 2011 may be met.

Gordon has made it clear that the referendum would be restricted to whether to stick with first past the post or to move to the alternative vote.  There are, I know, those among electoral reform campaigners who think AV is not proportional enough.  I think we must embrace Gordon Brown’s initiative as the only change we are likely to get in the foreseeable future.  It may not go as far as we would like, but it’s much better than first past the post.

We must also all be aware that our opponents do not like PR.  Since there is little that is fair in Tory social policy, it is hardly surprising they don’t want fair votes.  Quoted in yesterday’s Guardian, William Hague showed his usual lack of imagination: “It’s not the voting system that needs changing, it’s this weak and discredited prime minister. New politics needs a new government.”

Things are very different in the Labour Cabinet.  Ed Balls, the schools secretary, is a supporter of AV, as is Home Secretary Alan Johnson, John Denham, the communities secretary, Peter Hain, Welsh secretary, Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell, and, last but not least, Ben Bradshaw, the culture secretary.

Though the introduction of AV is the most important policy demanding immediate action, Gordon’s speech yesterday did not stop there.  He also announced that he wants a written constitution by 2015, the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta; a right for constituents to recall MPs if found guilty of corruption: a draft bill introducing a mainly elected Lords; and approval for local government reforms, entitled Total Place, that he said could produce £15bn of savings. He also said he supported votes at 16, but gave no commitment to put the proposal in the Labour manifesto.

I believe constitutional reform is important for its own sake.  Britain is the only country in Europe which does not have a proportional electoral system for its upper house.  On the other hand, I remain to be convinced that a package of changes to the way parliament and other representative institutions are elected will achieve very much in restoring people’s trust in politics, except perhaps for the measure to recall corrupt MPs.  Gordon Brown is setting out a vision for a modern democracy.  As the only real modern, progressive Party in Britain, Labour members have, I believe, a profound duty to support our Prime Minister in this crucially important task.