After 12 years in office, a senior Labour figure notices that the electoral system doesn’t really work…
Johnson urging electoral reform – BBC, Alan Johnson seizes initiative over Labour leadership – The Times.
Here’s an old joke (stop me if you’ve heard it). How many Liberal Democrats does it take to change a light bulb? Ten. One to change it, and nine to complain about the unfairness of the electrical system.
Lib-Dems have been complaining about the electoral system ever since they were the Lib-Dems. In fact, the Social Democrats — one of the predecessor parties, for those with short memories — really had it as their top policy. If you want to get really bored in a pub, identify a Lib-Dem (this time of year, easy to spot because they will be carrying lots of leaflets or a badge) and ask them to explain the difference between STV, AV, AV plus and the D’Hondt system. You can silently slip away if there are other Lib-Dems in the pub, because they will discuss it together for hours.
If you’ve heard less from us on the subject recently, it’s not that we don’t care about it any more, it’s that, with Gordon Brown in Downing Street, any prospect of electoral reform seemed further than ever. Back in the day, Tony Blair (you remember him, right?) commissioned Roy Jenkins, one of the founders of the Social Democrats (this is getting like Rock Family Trees, but without the loud music) to review the electoral system and come up with a recommendation for a truly fair, truly democratic system which could work in Britain. Jenkins took his road show round the country (I remember giving evidence at it), and duly made a recommendation which was a mixture of pragmatism and true reform. Word on the street, however (that’s Downing Street, not Ramsay Street), was that Gordon Brown bitterly opposed it, and Blair had to back down. Poor Blair, between Bush and Brown he really didn’t have much to call his own. So everything was shelved, and we went on with the same grossly unfair system which means that your vote only really counts if you live in a small number of swing seats, and are a floating voter. If you always vote for one party, or if you live in a ‘safe’ seat, then your vote doesn’t really do much.
The problem with electoral reform, of course, is that the people who have to vote it in — MPs — are the ones who got in under the present system, and have the most to lose if it changes. A bit like allowing MPs to vote on their own expenses, now I come to think about it.
So, with parliament in disarray, and the public out for blood, Alan Johnson, already tipped as a leadership contender, steps up and says we ought to change the whole system.
He’s right, of course, but his timing is absolutely rubbish! After twelve years of doing nothing, and just a year out from the last possible date for a General Election, how does he intend to get the system changed in time for anything other than electoral chaos next year? If he actually has a plan, let’s hear it. In principle, of course, with up to 350 MPs set to lose their seats as a result of the growing unpopularity not only of the government, but of the entire political class, this is a golden opportunity to change things. If we have an election on the old system, the 350 or so new MPs will suddenly have a vested interest in keeping the system going that elected them. And, of course, unless something very, very funny happens, Alan Johnson will not be running the show in 12 months and 2 weeks time.
So, what’s he about? One thing, perhaps two. Certainly, this is a gauntlet in the face to Gordon Brown, who, as yet, doesn’t quite seem to have woken up to the chaos around him. Johnson might as well have announced his intention to challenge Brown for the leadership. The second? Could Johnson be proffering an olive branch to the Lib-Dems? Could he be trying now to stitch up a coalition which will keep the Tories out? If so, he needs to make better guarantees than the ones that Tony Blair used to try to gain Paddy Ashdown’s support in the event of a hung parliament. Blair made (it appears in private) all kinds of promises to Ashdown. But, when he romped home to victory, these were watered down to a Jenkins commission which was moth-balled the moment it was finished.
(New) Labour may not learn, but Liberal Democrats have. We won’t be so trusting this time around… to paraphrase a higher authority, let Johnson first produce fruits in keeping with a commitment to fair democracy.