One wag reported, on hearing the news of the death of Metternich, “Now what did he mean by that?” The actions and sayings of Alan Johnson will likewise be analysed. So what did he mean by raising the question of electoral reform?
Here was a cry for traditional British politics to re-emerge. What Cabinet Government was like is still within living memory of older voters. It was not uncommon then for major figures in a political party to engage voters in a wider debate.
Alan is right in insisting that the reform of Parliament has to go beyond electing a new Speaker. The new Speaker could have a key role in driving through a new contract between the Commons and the voter but also, as Alan suggests a new contract between the Commons and government.
This is the central issue of the Speakership election. But is Alan right to back the Jenkins proposals? Again what is so good about Speaker Martin’s delayed resignation is that the country now has perhaps a unique opportunity to debate not that tired old phrase “constitutional reform” but to remake our democracy.
We must move to a system where minority parties are better represented in Parliament. But is any reform which contains a list system, however modified, going to satisfy an electorate fed up to the teeth at what is sees as a conveyor belt of party hacks being thrown at it?
For that is a key aspect of the Jenkins proposals. An element of proportionality will be brought into the system by “electing” members from a list system dominated – yes you’ve got it – by the party caucus.
We surely do not want more of that. One of the tasks of reform is to lessen the grip parties have in a way which doesn’t destroy a party system delivering responsible government i.e. a Government that is able to be held to account.
I have long advocated the French system. This keeps the constituency link so that every Member of Parliament knows that the buck stops with them. But it does ensure that every MP is elected by 50% plus one of the voters.
On the first Sunday of an election those representatives passing that margin are declared elected. On the following Sunday French voters turn up to decide between the top two candidates from the previous week when neither had passed the 50% plus one barrier. This system is capable of delivering not only authority to the MP, but better representation for minority parties. Take my Birkenhead result in 1979.
On our first part of the post system, I gained 49% of the poll, the Tories were second, the Liberals third. Under the French system I would have probably won with Liberal Votes switching to me.
But suppose the Liberals had come a good second and I was still a good way from gaining the support of the majority of voters. I am not so sure in those circumstances that the Conservative voters, not to mention a whole chunk of Labour voters, would not have moved on the second ballot to elect a Liberal Member. The closer the parties are in votes, i.e. the further any candidate is from gaining 50% plus one of the votes, the greater the “upset” is likely to be.
The other system I have advocated is open primaries. I believe in Birkenhead the law should allow the local Labour party to put me up with other Labour candidates in a primary and allow all voters, Tories and Liberals, to select the candidate who will in all likelihood the next Member of Parliament.
Not only would such a system prevent the wasted vote syndrome that there is in the safest seats. But it would likely result in a large number of such seats seeing the successful candidate from the primary being elected in a General Election unopposed. The fight could have already taken place in the primary.
Why not let parties hold such primaries should they want to? A small change in the electoral law would give a green light to greater voter choice of their representative.
For more information please see my Policy Exchange pamphlet “Life Support“.