06 March 2008

A Reply From The Ministry Of Justice And A Summary Of The Recent Progress / Make Votes Count Meeting At Westminster.

Dear Mr Harding. Thank you for your letter of 3 February to the Minister of State, Michael Wills, providing comments on the Government's review of Voting Systems.

Your letter...
has been forwarded to me for responding, as voting systems falls within the responsibility of my area within the Ministry of Justice.

There are a variety of views about the strengths and weaknesses of different voting systems and I thank you for presenting your views to us.

On the two points you raise about the 'constituency link' and the need to avoid coalition government, the Review points out that there are a diverse range of views.

Whether the connection between constituent and candidate is stronger under FPTP or forms of PR depends on individual's perspectives about whether there should be single or multi-member constituencies.

On the experience of coalition governments, the Review found that coalitions have been stable in the UK but that there are also examples internationally of both positive and negative experiences of coalition government.

At this point the Government is not seeking to reform the electoral system for the Commons. In a written Ministerial statement on 24 January 2008, the Minister of State, Michael Wills stated that:
"The Review is intended to inform the ongoing debate about the voting system in Westminster but does not make any recommendations.

"It remains the Government's strong view that since the voting system for Westminster Commons elections could fundamentally change the way parliamentary democracy operates, any proposed changes would need to be endorsed by a referendum.

"At this point, it would be premature to seek to reform the electoral system for the Commons while the voting system for a reformed and substantially or fully elected House of Lords is still to be determined. Reform of the electoral system for the Lords to a wholly or 80% elected chamber was supported by the House of Commons free vote in March 2007 and the Government is committed to formulating a comprehensive package of Lords reform, including developing detailed proposals for a wholly or mainly elected second chamber. Good progress is being made on the cross-party talks on Lords reform and the Government intends to publish a White Paper in the first part of 2008 reflecting the outcome of these discussions."
Yours sincerely, Dee Collins, Electoral Policy Division

This letter arrived today, so too late for me to take up the points it makes at the meeting I had attended on Tuesday.

On Tuesday I went to the 'should Labour ditch FPTP' meeting at the House of Commons organised by Progress and Make Votes Count. In attendance were Michael Wills, Polly Toynbee, Professor Robert Hazell and to give the sceptics view - Stephen Pound MP. It was chaired by Stephen Twigg. Each speaker was given seven minutes to outline their views.

The professor limited himself to the practical difficulties in implementing electoral reform. He said even if (a big if) the government decided to go for it - it could be a 'very long process'. He listed five stages;- devise system (9-12 months), legislate for referendum (needs time to discuss and debate in parliament), hold referendum (needs wide ranging public education campaign), if yes - then legislate for change, finally - conduct any necessary boundary reviews(can take anything from one to five years). He said the whole process could easily take more than one term to implement.

Polly followed this rather pessimistic start, with the opening salvo that Labour are '11 years too late' in implementing electoral reform and said it must come 'top of any failure list' of Labour's time in office. She thought that Tony Blair considered it a 'fight too many' and maybe he wasn't that bothered anyway; and that Gordon Brown just 'doesn't get it' and has a 'distaste for pluralism', perhaps inherited from his Scottish Labour roots. She said the next election would be decided by 8,000 fairly ignorant voters in a small number of marginal seats. FPTP was getting worse and although there are very real differences between the parties, the system forced all the parties to pretend they are in 'the muddled middle' to court these 8,000 voters - and this was causing vast swathes of voters to turn off party politics. She said PR was essential to give voters a 'left of Labour' or 'pro-European Tory', etc. representation. She said it was depressing to hear the professor being so negative about PR's chances and that she would welcome a 'hung parliament' at the next election.

Stephen Pound followed Polly and was in a jovial mood. He said he always looked forward to confronting a room full of electoral reformers with his robust defence of FPTP. He said all electoral systems led to 'despair and confusion'. Highlighted that there were now half a dozen independents in parliament and that 'breaking the link between constituent and member' was a 'fool's gold'. He said that members of the GLA were largely unknown and bone idol and that while he saw the 'theoretical attraction' of PR it was fundamentally flawed. He joked (I think) that the way to increase turnout was to 'make voting illegal' and that PR was unlikely to make much difference to political engagement or apathy.

Finally, Michael Wills (who had turned up during Polly's speech) spoke (like in the above letter) of how the recent review was a debating platform and made no recommendations. He said it was important to discuss the issues for the Commons, that 'Gordon' did believe in pluralism, but that Lords Reform needed to be dealt with first. Michael reminded the audience that it was Labour that had introduced various forms of PR for devolved and European elections. When pressed by Polly. he admitted that it was 'possible' that a referendum on PR could happen before the next general election, but quickly stressed that this was 'extremely unlikely'.

The Chair then opened the panel up to questions from the floor. In the ensuing debate, Polly mentioned that when she campaigned in Lewisham 25 years ago - 85% couldn't name their local MP. She added that reform should be seen as a progression. No system was perfect but even the Alternative Vote - AV could be a useful first step. She also argued that coalitions under PR were more transparent because they were decided directly by the electorate, rather than being horse traded behind closed doors as FPTP's unrepresentative 'portmanteau parties' are. The professor gave his views on compulsory voting and highlighted that in Australia it was introduced in the early part of the last century and that he wasn't sure it could be introduced in today's less 'deferential age'. He also suggested that as Lords reform was close to getting cross-party support, it made sense for it to come first. The audience generally disagreed with this view and when pressed, Michael Wills seemed to suggest that electoral reform of Westminster and local government would have to wait for Lord's reform. Stephen Pound finished off by re-affirming his support for FPTP, but admitted that some of tonight's arguments had given him 'pause for thought'. Whether this was just clever politicking was difficult to tell, but being the cynic I am, and that he voted for Hazel Blears in the recent deputy election, I suspected it was (although he did mention his experience of working with the SPD in Germany - which was interesting).

I came away from what was an entertaining meeting, quite depressed about the prospect of getting PR. It made me think that maybe reformers have been trying to get too big a prize in going for reform of Westminster elections and maybe it might have been more productive to go for change in local government first, just to show how well the system can work. It was also depressing to hear the obsessiveness of reformers who seemingly would die rather than have a rival PR system. If we are going to get anywhere we need to agree that any PR system is progress, or even a move to AV (oh the blasphemy) - a non PR system, might be worthwhile. This, I think was the point that Polly was trying to make.

So, now I am going to pen my reply to Dee Collins, which will probably go something like this.

Dear Dee Collins, Thank you for your reply of 29 February to my previous letter on the Government's Review of Voting Systems.

Whilst acknowledging that there are positive and negative experiences of coalition governments internationally, those countries that have had proportional systems continually since the war, have overwhelmingly had positive experiences when compared to the UK, Canada and other countries with FPTP.

I take the following quotations (pdf) from the Review;
“We do not find a difference between PR systems and FPTP in terms of delivering stable and effective government although, with a greater number of
parties involved under PR, the political landscape can be more dynamic. In the experience of the UK, coalition governments can be just as stable as single party
governments.” (para 6.168)

“One of the main benefits of PR is that voters have a greater degree of choice in elections and a greater chance of their vote counting in terms of who gets
elected.” (para 6.169)

Proportional systems were found, on international comparison, to be associated with higher voter turnout than First Past the Post and other majoritarian systems. (para 7.97)
Surely these points, coupled with the travesty of minority and 'wrong winner' governance that FPTP brings, are enough to make a change of our archaic and undemocratic electoral system of the utmost urgency?

Firstly, I do not understand why Lords reform has to take precedence over reform of the Commons electoral system, I think this is being used as a delaying tactic.

Secondly, I understand that any electoral reform for the Commons is going to be difficult and perhaps painful to achieve in the face of the vested interests of MPs already elected under the present system. I also understand, though fail to share, the attachment some may have to the 'constituency link'.

For these reasons may I suggest that the electoral system used in Baden-Wurttemberg in Germany might be an easier system for MPs to accept, in the move towards proportionality. It was also the system proposed for Westminster by the Hansard Society in 1976.
"The electoral system is a combination of proportional representation and direct or personality election. The number of seats of the parties in Parliament is determined by the votes they obtain throughout the electoral area (proportional representation). The allocation of seats to the parties' individual candidates is determined by the number of votes these candidates receive in their respective constituencies (direct election). There are only constituency candidates, that is, each candidate must run for election in one of Baden- W├╝rttemberg's 70 electoral districts. In contrast to federal elections, each voter has one vote under this system, which he casts for a candidate in his district. However, this vote is counted twice, once in order to determine the number of seats going to a party in Parliament, and a second time to determine the candidate of a party to whom these seats will be allocated".
Failing this system being adopted, I would favour any move towards a more proportional system for the Commons as a progressive move, or even a non-proportional system such as the Alternative Vote would be an improvement on the system we currently have.

Thank you for your consideration and I hope these views are of use to you in any further decision that is eventually taken, or not taken.

Yours sincerely, Neil Harding

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