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Half-Proposals

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Gordon Brown has at the last minute and too late been converted to the alternative vote (AV) as a method of election to the House of Commons. AV preserves single-member constituencies but ensures that the winning candidate must win at least 50 per cent of the votes plus one. As many have noted, it is the way the lower houses of Australian parliaments are elected. By itself it is a minimal reform, better than nothing but something the Lib Dems would regard as merely a first step. What no one has pointed out is that the upper houses of all Australian parliaments (except Queensland which abolished its upper house) are elected by forms of proportional representation (PR). In Australia the two go together: AV for the lower house and some form of PR for the upper have emerged historically as a single electoral system, the one complementing the other, and Australian political parties have been surprisingly willing to forgo short-term political advantage in order to secure it.

There is, of course, a longer-term political advantage here. It means that even if you can’t get control of the upper house, neither can your opponents. Since these upper houses are powerful (and in the case of the federal Senate very powerful) they act as a constraint on what governments can do; more especially they stop governments doing foolish things. It was during the brief period when John Howard’s government had control of the Senate – to their surprise – that they introduced the industrial relations legislation that was their undoing. On the night of their electoral defeat more than one of Howard’s ministers regretted that they ever won control of the Senate. (They no longer control it.)

The difficulty, therefore, with Gordon Brown’s half-proposals is that they have no provision for the Lords. AV becomes defensible only if it is accompanied by a second chamber which is elected by a form of PR. In that way, the benefits – such as they are – of single-member constituencies are preserved while the system as a whole becomes more genuinely democratic, politically more stable and so less subject to hubris. (The Tories can reflect that under such a combination there would have been no poll tax.)

If the Labour Party is serious about reform, if it survives in government (both, of course, highly problematic) its proposals should combine the AV with a House of Lords wholly elected by PR or a variant. That would probably satisfy the Lib Dems, at least for a while, and certainly improve the general quality of government. The trouble is that the Labour Party has never taken the long view – snatch an advantage while you can, regardless of the consequences – and has been too attached to the institutions of the British state, including dear old first-past-the-post and apparently unfettered single-party government, to recognise that electoral reform of both Houses of Parliament is in fact in its long-term interest. A hung Parliament might concentrate its mind; though history is not encouraging and the Lib Dems should strike a hard bargain.

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