The Telegraph’s true colours have begun to come out. More even than a Tory victory at the next election, it wants things to stay unchanged. It is more deeply conservative than the Conservative party. Therefore, it is rather unnerved by the mood for change which its expenses scandal has created. Although it has rather misunderstood Gordon Brown, who is not proposing proportional representation at all, but a system which is more complicated to administer and is not truly proportional.
Be that as it may, Simon Heffer’s argument is that changing the constitution will not prevent MPs from abusing expenses. But, if the current crisis has taught us nothing else, it has at least shown us that the more vulnerable MPs feel to the wishes of the electorate, the more scrupulous they feel they have to be. At one blow, a proportional system would end the corrupt collection of safe seats which, in truth, have a similar effect to the rotten boroughs of before the Great Reform Act. Rotten boroughs, of course, had only a few electors, and were in the hands of wealthy landowners. Safe seats, despite the multiplicity of voters, function in the same way. Just a few votes count — the votes of the members of the local constituency association of the party which ‘owns’ the seat. Once they have been cast, and the candidate selected, they are more or less guaranteed to be returned to parliament. Nothing short of a landslide victory for the other party puts a safe seat at risk, and, even then, the truly safe seats remain in the hands of the party that ‘owns’ them — until now, of course. The enormous backlash of the expenses scandal means that even the safest seats are unsafe for candidates deemed to have betrayed their voters. In the most notorious cases — Kirkbride and Mackay, for example — the incumbents are fleeing in order to give their successors a fighting chance. In the less clear cases, such as that of Bill Cash, incumbents are paying back money and making all kinds of promises.
What we very clearly see is that threatened MPs are suddenly much, much more interested in being seen by their voters as honest. The contempt which some MPs clearly have for the electorate (for example, the MP who said that people were angry with him because they were jealous of his Balmorral-like property) vanishes into humility.
Gordon Brown’s proposal would not end safe seats. In fact, although it would reduce the chances of a landslide victory, it gives the parties more power to ensure that their anointed are returned to parliament. A true proportional system, such as the Single Transferable Vote, ensures that all votes are counted, and all count. An MP who is loved by 45% of his electorate, but hated by 55%, is no longer in a safe seat. If he wishes to maintain his position, he will have to make friends with at least 5% more of the electorate, whereas, under the current system, he could probably have risked losing the support of another 10% and still got home.
Will this make MPs more risk averse? Certainly it will make them more averse to the kinds of ‘risks’ that cheating on expenses bring. But any MP worth their salt will realise that a broader public vote will support a Member who can be seen to work hard.
The long and short of it: Simon Heffer is simply wrong. Nothing would apply the minds of parliamentarians to transparent honesty than a proportional system. But nothing like a proportional system is actually what Gordon Brown is offering us. In his own words: “I have never supported proportional representation…”