Alan Johnson proposes REAL parliamentary reform

It's hard to figure out what the Labour party should do about its leader. There is no doubt that Gordon Brown is an electoral liability, and that Labour will lose the next election because of the thirteen years he has been in charge of the economy. But would they become electable if they changed their leader? That's the dilemma.

I'm sure the Milibands of this world would love it if Alan Johnson stepped up to the plate. Let him bring a glimmer of hope to the party, then let him take the bullet when Labour lose the general election (the fate of all failed party leaders) ... it would let David Miliband in almost unopposed.

If I cared about the fate of Alan Johnson (who seems to be the more acceptable face of Labour) I'd have urged him to keep his powder dry. But something has happened that has made me change my mind.


As reported in yesterday's Times, Alan Johnson has come out strongly, pitching for reform at Westminster. He doesn't mean reform of expenses, because that no longer needs much reform. All that is needed to solve the expenses scandal is the same sort of transparency that we already have in the Senedd and Holyrood. Transparency is what MPs were fighting for so long to prevent; but now that MPs expense claims will be available for everyone to see (as they surely will be) we can be quite sure that no MP will in future make bogus, unjustifiable claims. Expenses are yesterday's news ... even though the Telegraph will spin the story out until the Euro elections on 4 June.

Reform needs to go much deeper than that. Westminster faces some far more fundamental problems which undermine its democratic legitimacy. The principle that has been steadily eroded over the past few decades is that Parliament should be able to hold Government to account for its actions, and exercise scrutiny over proposed legislation to make it better than it might otherwise be. But under Westminster's arcane electoral system a party that gets a minority of the vote invariably gets an artificial majority of seats in the Commons. Therefore government can push through legislation even when a majority of people in the UK object to it. Parliament is effectively sidelined.

A second problem is that the FPTP system effectively disenfranchises most of the electorate. The result of any general election depends almost entirely on what happens in fewer than a hundred marginal seats. All the parties concentrate their resources on those seats ... and the votes of people in the other 500 plus seats are taken for granted. Consequently, because people know their votes won't make any difference, they tend not to bother to vote at all.

Changing the voting system so that the number of seats won more closely reflects the percentage that votes for each party is the one big thing that will go furthest to making Westminster more democratically accountable.


But how do we make this happen? ... because it won't happen until there are enough people in the House of Commons to vote it through, or at least vote to allow us to have a referendum on the issue. Westminster operates on the "Buggins' Turn" principle. It suits both of the two big parties to have total control some of the time, then let the other big party have total control next time, knowing that in ten or fifteen years they'll be back again. It shuts out everyone else, and reinforces the dominance of each party's internal machinery, because no-one can get to any position of power in Westminster without going through the party system.

The only parties who really want PR are the ones who are perpetually disadvantaged by the system (the poor Lib Dems) and—and this is the important part—one of the big parties when they face a long period in opposition. Labour are now in that position ... and that is what gives Westminster a once in a lifetime opportunity to change things.


When New Labour first came to power, they set up a Commission under King Jean XV * to examine the options for electoral reform. Why? Because that's what they had long promised to do while they were in their 18 years of opposition.

We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system.

Labour Manifesto, 1997

The Commission was put into an impossible position because, now that Labour were in power, the very last thing on their mind was to change the system that had just given them such a huge artificial majority (63.4% of the seats on just 43.2% of the vote). But, nonetheless, they tried hard to come up with a system that introduced a very, very small degree of proportionality, knowing that anything more radical would be squashed.

They came up with something called Alternative Vote Plus, which would keep 80% of MPs elected on a "one MP per constituency" basis (but elected on an order of preference basis, with the winner being the first to get 50% of the vote) with the remaining 20% through top up seats on a closed party list.

Even that most moderate of proposals was rejected (the first of Labour's broken referendum promises) but the second part was introduced for regional seats in the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament. Not much, but better than nothing.


Alan Johnson is now proposing to revive this proposal and put it to a referendum. Let's not kid ourselves; the reason he is doing this is only partly because he believes in PR. It is mostly because Labour are facing two or three parliamentary terms in the political wilderness, so having this form of PR will reduce the impact of what would otherwise be a a series of Tory landslide victories. He is proposing it for the sake of Labour, not for the sake of democracy. But, even so, democracy will benefit.

I think the Alternative Vote Plus system is a very watered-down version of what PR should be. I would much rather see the introduction of Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies ... as is used in Ireland, both north and south. But the chances of getting that for Westminster are almost certainly zero. So the pragmatist in me has reluctantly accepted that it has to be either this (the Commission has already done all the spade work, and made its recommendation) or nothing.

I won't pretend that this is being done for altruistic reasons. It is being done because it benefits the Labour Party. And it will only make it through Westminster because Labour MPs know that they will (at least in the short term) be the prime beneficiaries of the change. Of course they wouldn't ever put it that way; they would say it is a matter of principle. They might even say that they are belatedly offering the referendum they promised for New Labour's first term. Why not let them have that fig leaf? The long term benefits of moving even a little way from the unfair first-past-the-post system will far outweigh the sanctimonious posturing we'll have to listen to.


This means that a form of PR for Westminster is now achievable. The Tories will oppose it, of course. It is not in their interests to support it because Buggins is just about to give them their long awaited turn. The other parties will, I hope, support it. In particular I would urge the LibDems not to play silly buggers over points of principle. Of course STV is much better. But we will need Labour votes in the Commons, and for Labour to campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum. It is better to be united around a workable compromise than to split the vote by holding out for something better. I'd urge people in my own party, Plaid Cymru, and in the SNP to do the same.

So Alan, be bold. Step up to the plate. Under your leadership, I think you can persuade the Labour Party to adopt PR. And by doing so, you will have done more than anyone else to fix the broken political system at Westminster.


* Le Roi Jean Quinze - a pun so old that it is thought to date from pre-revolutionary France

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Sweet and Tender Hooligan said...

I am sorry, but alan Johnson has campaigned for this for nigh on twenty years. Also I am assuming you are in no way an advocate of pr because it has and will benefit plaid? Self interest swings all ways.

MH said...

Don't misunderstand me, STH. I am saying that principle and pragmatism need to go hand in hand. Yes, AJ was a supporter of PR back at the time the Jenkins' Report came out ... but he was in a minority in the Labour Party at that time. That's why the report was shelved.

He is raising the issue NOW because he believes most of the rest of the Parliamentary Labour Party can be persuaded to come round. Some will do it out of principle, others out of self interest. As long as it happens, I don't particularly care which.

Let's work together to achieve something we both agree about.

Draig said...

That strikes me as a cheap party political dig Hooligan, in response to a considered and interesting post.

You know full well that Plaid are never going to achieve a majority in the UK Parliament, and therefore don't derive the ultimate benefit that parties like YOURS - Labour - always do.

Alwyn ap Huw said...

The difficulty with Mr Johnson's proposal is that he wants to hold a referendum on PR.

If voting for PR is seen as a means of saving Labour's bacon at a time that the majority would prefer too see Labour's bacon fried - who is going to vote Yes in the referendum?

MH said...

I'd put that down to the difference between politicians and people, Alwyn. Politicians want a system that gives them the results they want for their party, people long for a system that makes politicians accountable to them.

I don't think anyone could object to the basic premise of PR: namely that if a party gets 40% of the vote, it is fair they should get roughly 40% of the seats ... not 60%. So, when the public actually gets a chance to vote in a referendum, I think the vote can be won. But only if we fight it on the exclusive issue of fairness, rather than party advantage.

The difficulty is getting politicians to agree to let us have that vote. That takes a particular (even unique) set of circumstances: namely that one party's political self interest coincides with the matter of principle ... at a time when they have a large enough majority get it through the Commons. We have that opportunity now. If we don't take it we probably won't get another chance for decades.

Bear in mind also that the next election will still be fought on a FPTP basis. If the referendum is held on the same day (and won) it will mean that subsequent elections will be fought using a PR. It will probably take the Boundaries Commision a few years to make all the necessary changes anyway.

It goes without saying that the referendum would need to be a binding referendum rather than a "consultative" one. If it were the second, the Tories would immediately overturn it, which would make it pointless.

Sweet and Tender Hooligan said...

Draig, you are wrong, sorry. I was merely saying that self interest exists in every party.

Unknown said...

It seems to me that, unlike deciding which Rugby (or other) side you support, aligning with a political party involves compromise. You may agree with 70% of let's say,Plaid policies, but strongly disagree with other of their policies (Which I do!). I strongly agree with some Tory policies (very few!) and some labour ones as well (even fewer!) - So which party should I decide on?

Has to be plaid, for me, because I believe the UK would be better governed if power - as much as possible -were devolved. Then the other stuff could be decided locally. Seems Cameron is coming round to this. let us make our own mistakes!

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