Electoral reform

Talk on Electoral reform given at the Royal Society of Arts

17 June 2009

I am delighted to be here with Professor John Keane, whose biography of Tom Paine I eulogised about in History Today when it was published some years ago. Now John Keane has written an important book, "The Life and Death of Democracy", which poses challenging questions.
Of course, so-called representative democracy is not sufficient to create the conditions of human happiness and the good life which should be the end of political activity. We have seen an election in Iran which has elected as President a Jew-hating extremist who denies the rights of women, gays, journalists, and trade unionists in Iran. We have seen a festival of representative democracy in India. Yet more than six decades after India took control of its destiny via representative democracy, more than half of the Indian population cannot read or write and there are more Indians living in absolute poverty than ever before. So representative democracy in Iran and India is not, in itself, enough.
I make this point to suggest that the notion that forms of election can deliver perfection or even better government needs more strenuous examination. The American constitution that Tom Paine’s endeavours brought about has not been much altered. Americans still elect their Congress and their President on a first-past-the-post basis. In contrast, France, a country I know well, has altered its electoral system about five times in the last 25 years. It has not guaranteed more honest politics, as the corruption accusations and destruction of political careers in France has been far more serious than the current MP expenses row.
I could run through a number of European countries which have PR systems and where voters have no sense of their elected representatives being accountable. No-one in Belgium or Switzerland has the faintest idea who their MP is. Party machines decide who can be chosen and elected. Party machines do deals after an election to decide who is a minister or even head of government. At the European Parliament in 2005, the centre-right won a clear majority. But the president of the European parliament was a Catalan socialist who had never served there before. That is what PR gives you.
In Britain, PR would bring in up to 20 BNP MPs, the same number of UKIP MPs, as well as other smaller groups representing separatist or religious parties. At the moment, people have to form a broad coalition within the democratic left, the democratic right and the democratic centre in the shape of the Lib-Dems. That puts the main national parties in Britain, as with the Democrats and Republicans in America, under the obligation to come to compromises and develop programmes that correspond to different demands.
Of course, parliament needs to be reformed. But the sight of party machines excluding MPs is not a pretty one. In 1939, the Labour Party expelled Nye Bevan because he was too left-wing. At the same time, the Conservative Party was trying to persuade Winston Churchill’s constituency party to de-select him because of Churchill’s opposition to the Tory appeasement policy of the day. Both Bevan and Churchill were protected by having been elected by a free people who chose within a specific localist area who would speak for them in Parliament. They and not party machines made that choice. If we move to destroying that system by allowing MPs to face being ousted by party machines, or by some new state quango, the Council of Guardians of MPs, or by a local campaign led by pressure groups to get rid of their MP under the so-called recall system, then we will have a very different democracy in Britain.
I am not opposed to electoral reform but please can we think through the consequences. It is policy, and party and personality – in the sense of the leadership of a party, that makes the difference. To confuse the form of election with the content of what an election should deliver – namely good government - is a fatal error.
I lived in Switzerland for many years and remain underwhelmed that endless referendums deliver political engagement. Voting in national, cantonal and local elections in Switzerland is much lower than in neighbouring countries. I also note that in California, a referendum has decided to abolish gay marriages. Again, we should be careful in case we get what we wish. Plebiscites are a populist device and populist politics is rarely, if ever, progressive politics.
Again I do not oppose a written constitution. Greece has one, as does Germany. In Greece, the ruling party dare not risk a vote on lifting the immunity of one of its MPs who, when a minister, was accused of taking political backhanders. If this gentleman appears before the courts, the government loses its majority and power. So its response has been to suspend the Greek parliament. In Germany, the firm Siemens is up to its neck in accusation of bribing politicians to the tune of €1.3 billion. Both the suspension of the Greek parliament and the allegations of massive corruption in Germany have happened under written constitutions.
I make these points, not to say nothing needs reforming, but to argue that politics depends on content more than form – on policy and good leadership rather than PR, AV, STV or even formal written constitutions. I wish this debate well but I will prefer to devote my energies to seeing how one can shape a progressive, reforming politics for the 21st century for my country, and for Europe.