30 July 2008

What Labour Should Do Now.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the Guardian claims Labour 'gerrymandered' the boundaries in the 1990s to give them...
their current electoral bias. If this is true, they must have had the full consent of the Tories at the time.

It is both Labour and Tories who carve up constituency boundaries together (often cynically making it more difficult for minor parties to progress). While it is true that the Tories were stupidly inept in the 1990s for letting individual Tory MPs shore up their safe seats rather than having a collective strategy, as Labour did, to capture more marginals, you can hardly blame the Labour party for that?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft outlines just some of the ridiculous results our current electoral system gives us (in England 286 seats for Labour on 35.5% to 194 seats to Tories on 35.7% of the vote), but rather than blame the system, he blames the way Labour negotiated more advantageous boundaries. What he forgets to mention is that the boundaries have since been renegotiated again for the next general election and STILL psephologists predict a large Labour advantage. The Tories were not inept at negotiating this time, in fact Labour apparently negotiated poorly. The problem is that first-past-the-post's faults cannot be corrected without completely destroying the so called 'constituency link' that is the biggest argument in its favour (myth though that is).

Boundaries would have to ignore administrative, geographical and community links much more than they do at present and be redrawn for every election, making a mockery of accountability. Even now an MP is more likely to be removed by changing boundaries than by voters changing their votes.

The real problem stems from the fact that poorer urban voters tend to vote Labour more and richer rural voters tend to vote Tory more. This leads to what is called 'differential turnout' - Labour and Tory constituencies can be the same size but poorer urban constituencies turnout less - so Labour can win seats there with maybe 10,000 votes less than the Tories get in rural seats.

Wheatcroft says there is an argument for giving a disproportionate number of seats to the winners of the plurality of the vote (plurality because 35% of the vote to the 'winners' means the majority, i.e 65%, voted for other parties), but not a disproportionate amount to parties that come second as at present. But from Birmingham to Brighton and dozens of councils inbetween (not to mention a few general elections and US presidents), this system repeatedly does just that - giving more seats to the losing party. And why should parties in third place or fourth place etc be discriminated against as well, especially now voters have become more pluralistic in their choices? Surely this indictment of our system can only lead to one conclusion - this 19th century system has to be changed. How can any democrat argue against proportional representation - where 50% of the vote gets you 50% of the seats and 35% gets you 35% etc?

Wheatcroft then goes on to the 'West Lothian question' and once again blames Labour for 'cynically' pandering to Scottish demands for a parliament. But it is not Labour's fault that the Tories can only win one seat north of the border and that most people there not surprisingly were unhappy at being ruled by the Tories from Westminster. Surely if anyone is at fault for devolution then it is the Tories who ignored Scottish voters in the first place, not the Scottish people who demanded devolution or a Labour government that delivered it.

Then we get on to 'English taxpayers funding Scottish services'. But of course the same argument could be made about 'London taxpayers funding the North of England' or 'Kensington taxpayers funding Hackney'. We are always going to get poorer areas funded by richer areas within any nation - that is part of the deal of being a nation or community and poorer and richer areas are always in flux and more equality in the long term interest of all concerned. Increasing inequality just causes more social and economic problems.

So where am I going with all this? - Constitutional Change that is where.

For any government as unpopular as this one - making any argument for changing the details of an electoral system or constitution is going to be an almost impossible task - let alone when the forces of conservatism that dominates our media will be universally and vociferously hostile. There is no point lamenting that if Labour had given a referendum on PR when they had promised one in their first term when riding high in the opinion polls it would have been easily passed, instead they bottled probably the most important manifesto promise since the Reform Act.

But, the press and Tories have left one chink of light, one Achille's heal. By pandering to xenophobic English nationalism, the press have not only boosted the racist BNP, they have provided a populist opportunity for Labour to solve the 'West Lothian' debate and win back the white working class vote without pandering to racism.

Labour should ditch Brown obviously, but the new leader (whomever that is) should immediately promise to set up an English Parliament with the same powers (and electoral system) as Scotland. This would require a referendum, win the support of English nationalists and liberals alike and be difficult for the Tories and press to argue against.

Now, as readers of my blog will know - I am not a big fan of an English Parliament, as I think regional government would be much more efficient and less likely to break up the UK but when the alternative is worse I can be pragmatic (I can even see the need for Labour to officially drop ID cards and a widening of the DNA database. I believe ID cards and a universal DNA database could be fairer and beneficial if implemented right but they are unimportant fringe policies compared to much more important constitutional reform).

The prospect of a Tory government and their 'English votes for English MPs' (deceitful) mantra and that the SNP will win a referendum anyway in Scotland once the Tories are in power - an English parliamant seems a good popularist way to introduce PR to English voters. Scottish independence would be inevitable anyway if English fury is left to fester. And the Tories are so hated in Scotland they would never want to be governed by them from London. This policy would at least ensure that health, education and other domestic policies are decided by the majority across Britain in each nation, rather than by a minority sitting in London. We could even scrap the House of Lords and put the English Parliament there to save money.

This would be such a radical proposal, it would surely enthuse most voters - it is simple and populist and would be a great improvement for our democracy. The English parliament could also introduce the single-transferable-vote to local government as the Scottish parliament has and maybe even hopefully devolve more powers downwards once parties are forced to work together in the long term interest of the country rather than partizan party political games as at present.


  1. But if we have an English Parliament, why do we need a UK one as well?
    Let's just get rid of that layer of expense claimers.

  2. Anon: An English parliament could replace the House of Lords.

  3. Regional assemblies are unwanted. An English parliament operating under PR with a system of English regional grand committees would do the job just fine.

    The new English parliament should be located outside London, somewhere like Birmingham, Manchester or Liverpool.