The True Aim of Electoral Reform

By Weir, Stuart; Dunleavy, Patrick | New Statesman (1996), December 5, 1997 | Go to article overview

The True Aim of Electoral Reform


Weir, Stuart, Dunleavy, Patrick, New Statesman (1996)


It is to marginalise the Tories for good, so don't expect a relaxed approach

The new world of British politics may have begun not with a bang, but a whimper. After intense negotiation, a small body with a big task - the "independent" electoral commission - has been launched. Its task is not so much to recommend an alternative to first-past-the-post elections to Westminster that's largely scripted - but to set the foundations for Tony Blair's big idea: the realignment of centre-left politics.

The commission is a bunch of five more or less able, ageing and clubbable people, who are neither specialists on electoral systems nor obvious members of the great and the good. Two have close ties with the Labour establishment: David Lipsey, the Economist's Bagehot columnist, was adviser to the late Tony Crosland and was once canvassed as a loyalist editor of the New Statesman. Lady Gould is a former head of organisation at Labour Party HQ and the most interesting choice. She was involved in Labour's own committee on electoral reform, chaired by Raymond Plant, and became a convert to Germany's purely proportional additional-member system. But as a Labour whip in the Lords, party loyalty is likely to prevail over her personal views.

The commission thus looks hand-picked for pragmatic openness to political realities, as represented by the troika of Roy Jenkins, its chair, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown. None of the imaginative appointments that were being floated around - Polly Toynbee, Darcus Howe, Plant - made it. They might have given the commission an undesirably high profile. This is, deliberately, not a body of people to set the world on fire.

The contrast with the Royal Commission in New Zealand is instructive. It brought together a talented group who mastered the brief and sold the idea of reform to the New Zealand people over the heads of the political parties. The two main parties both campaigned against change, but the New Zealand electors voted to swop first past the post for proportional representation.

Blair, Ashdown and Jenkins have no intention of losing control. At a meeting of Liberal Democrat peers, Jenkins was asked whether he would take the commission out on the road and meet the people. He was shocked at the very idea. Shame - the prospect of his stately progress around the UK, Good Food Guide in hand, is most diverting.

The commission has a year to choose an alternative to run against first past the post in a referendum. It is required to come up with a broadly proportional system, or combination of systems, that keeps MPs' constituency links, provides stable government, and widens voter choice. …

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