PR: The Piecemeal Revolution

Article excerpt

AMS? STV? FPTP? Labour's ambivalence towards constitutional reform is evident from the bewildering patchwork of electoral systems on offer

If you were planning to transform Britain's electoral habits, you might mention it. You might make a fuss about it. You might put a couple of spin-doctors on the case, advertising your commitment to "fair votes" and "people power".

Not a bit of it. Radical change is coming piecemeal, as bits of Labour's constitutional reform package tumble out of the government's portmanteau. New voting systems are springing up like mushrooms in various parts of the forest. As announced this week, there will be a regional list system for the 1999 Euroelections. In Scotland and Wales, voters will be using the Additional Member System to choose their Parliament and Assembly. We don't yet know how Londoners will pick the new mayor and Greater London Authority - perhaps with the Alternative Vote and the Single Transferable Vote. Finally, an Electoral Reform Commission is about to start work on which new method of electing MPs should be put to a referendum.

It is a revolution, but a reluctant one. "Labour has never really come to terms with proportional representation," says Stuart Weir, director of the Democratic Audit project. "We're seeing the party give up First Past The Post - the system it prefers and under which it has done well recently - in an incremental and uncoordinated way."

Jack Straw and John Prescott, key cabinet players, remain hostile to PR.

But a party in denial has been made to confront the implications of PR by the case of the Strasbourg Four, the quartet of Labour MEPs suspended last week for refusing to accept that they must not discuss publicly how candidates will be chosen for the new regional list system.

The Four may have done the state some service. Their protest has highlighted the huge knock-on effects the new voting systems will have on party management, internal democracy and relations between politicians and the public.

Take the Euro-elections in 18 months' time. You will be voting not for an individual, but for a party list that has been chosen and ranked in advance. This "closed list" system is used to elect MEPs in France and Germany. Ireland and Finland use an "open list", where voters number their own preferences. "It's the difference between a set menu and an a la carte," says Peter Facey of the Electoral Reform Society. "It means that all the discussion about who is going to be elected is internalised within the parties, and voters have no say."

The battle is not quite over. The bill is to be introduced in the Lords, where Liberal Democrat peers will try to bring in an element of openness, such as exists in Belgium, where voters can show special support for a candidate who is low on the party list.

The prospect of closed lists ("not a term I think we should use," wrote Straw in a memo leaked to the Guardian) is already causing political turbulence. …