Sunday, 24 May 2009

PR is a red herring

The Observer's editorial today uses the current political crisis to argue for PR. I found myself agreeing with the first portion of the piece. Especially:
First, identify the worst offenders in the expenses scandal and signal a clear end to their parliamentary careers. Second, find a mechanism to re-engage voters in the political process.
So far so good, it had me in thrall. Then it veered wildly off towards advocating proportional representation. This seems to me to completely miss the point. Do PR systems have a better chance of responding to the interests of the voters? My instinct says not. In fact, they can remove power from the voters and hand it to parties. If you know that in a given multi-member seat you are going to get one out of three seats, say, then you can just parachute in a party insider. They are elected. Job done, you've got your chunk of support and you've got your favoured candidate. Where has there been any real voter engagement? What is forcing that MP to build a deep relationship with those voters? How is that better from the current system?

Moreover, there is no need for representatives to reach beyond their base. Politics could become ossified. Personally, I do favour voting reform but proportionality is just one consideration and not actually the most important one. For me, clarity, directness, and opportunity for change are far more important. For this reason, I have begun to favour the Alternative Vote which meets these criteria and forces representatives to engage with a broader range of viewpoints and voters than is currently the case. It could even create a greater spirit of independence amongst MPs as a result which is welcome.

The opposite could be true with a PR system other than at a national coalition-building level with is about elite bargaining rather than direct engagement of voters in the political process.

No, I think the calls for PR in terms of answering this particular political crisis- a chasm between voters and those who represent them- miss the point. I am happy to be convinced but it has the feel of a red herring. As I argued in my LabourList column earlier this week the direct measures that are now needed are: open primaries with strictly limited expenditure, a greater separation of the executive and parliament, a different culture of engagement with voters, and, yes, some electoral reform but only insofar as it puts MPs under greater not less democratic scrutiny. There is also a discussion to be had about party funding but I'm not in favour of state funding which seems to be off the table now- rightly.

One final point, the most spectacular democratic revival we have seen recently is across the Atlantic Ocean. It was in a first past the post system with primaries. It was spontaneous and happened as a result of the inspiration of a small number of people rather than ponderous, worthy and often self-serving discussion of constitutional reform. Obama '08 was a hostile takeover of the Democratic party and the American political process. Who is ready to do the same in Britain?

Post script: I found David Cameron's performance on The Andrew Marr Show this morning excruciatingly embarrassing. The Tories are clearly spooked by UKIP and they were the real target of his comments. Change? I didn't hear a single thing that suggested that he grasps the current situation. He is at sea.

Post script 2: Sunder Katwala makes the case for electoral reform over at Next Left. I suspect that he would go further than my suggestions above. Electoral reform, yes, but proportional representation- especially multi-member constituencies- a no for me.


  1. as I have said on Next Left, the changes to the voting system have to be done in stages. Keep the same number of MPs post-2010 but elect with AV, then review what could be the permamant replacement.

    But if Cameron wants to reduce MPs, he'll need larger constituencies, and that will mean FPTP becoming wholly inappropriate.

  2. Hi Liam.

    I've commented on Sunder's blog also.

    Ultimately, I'm pragmatic about these things. I've only recently become a convert to AV but I am well and truly converted.

    Behind every constitutional change there is a a party interest and the same true of Cameron's 'reduce the number' of MPs. If it was matched with some form of electoral reform then it becomes a runner. Without, it is not as you point out; it is just a way to water down urban edge seats with Tory rural districts. e.g. in Worcestershire, that would get rid of Worcester and Redditch, the only two seats where Labour has a chance.

    But I'm glad political reform is moving from the fringes finally...