Beyond Proportional Representation

David Marquand

  • The People and the Party System: The Referendum and Electoral Reform in British Politics by Vernon Bogdanor
    Cambridge, 285 pp, £20.00, September 1981, ISBN 0 521 24207 X

The ‘Attlee consensus’, under the aegis of which the welfare state was consolidated and the mixed economy established, has been in ruins for some years now, but it is still too soon to tell whether a new consensus will replace it, or, if so, what the shape of that new consensus will be. The neo-liberal and neo-Marxist models offered by the Thatcherite Right and Bennite Left respectively are patently archaic and barren. Both rest on assumptions drawn from the primitive industrialism of the early 19th century. Neither is remotely relevant to a post-industrial society in the late 20th. But huddling in the rubble, gamely pretending that the familiar old building is still intact – the alternative offered by the Tory Wets and the traditional Labour Right – is not a satisfactory option either. With all their faults, the Thatcherites and Bennites have at least realised that the world of the Forties and Fifties is dead. The Gilmours, the Priors, the Healeys and the Hattersleys seem to think it can be resuscitated by mellifluous invocations of the spirit of Disraeli or cosy chats in a trade-union country house.

This is the real justification of – and, at the same time, a daunting challenge to – the SDP and the emerging SDP-Liberal Alliance. The ‘Attlee consensus’ was the child of an inchoate and inexplicit, but nevertheless deep-rooted and persistent social-democratic tradition, which went back to the early Fabians and the ‘New Liberalism’ of 1906-1914. That tradition has been the majority tradition in this country since 1945, perhaps since 1940. Though it was on the defensive for most of the Seventies, it is still the majority tradition today.

Mrs Thatcher’s attempts to uproot and destroy it have failed. It has turned out to be stronger than she is; and, after nearly three years of nagging and hectoring from her and her ministers, it is stronger now than it was when she came into office. The overwhelming probability is that it would also survive a Bennite government. The British are still the same kindly, anti-ideological, instinctive Social Democrats whom that archetypal Social Democrat, George Orwell, celebrated forty years ago; and, as every British prime minister from Churchill to Callaghan has known in his bones, they can be governed successfully only from a social-democratic position. If a new consensus does replace the ruined ‘Attlee consensus’ – and it is hard to see how a pluralist political order can survive indefinite dissensus – the new consensus will have to be social-democratic too.

But it will have to be genuinely new, not a disguised version of the ‘Attlee consensus’ of the past; and the social democracy it embodies will have to be applied in a different way, and through different instruments, from those of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties. It will have to be decentralist where the ‘Attlee consensus’ was centralist, libertarian where the ‘Attlee consensus’ was dirigiste, power-diffusing where the ‘Attlee consensus’ concentrated power. Above all, it will have to be self-consciously and explicitly constitutional, in a sense in which the ‘Attlee consensus’ was not. It will have to be concerned, not just with the ends for which state power can be used, but with the way in which power is won and held: not just with the content of public policy, but with the way in which policy is made and implemented: not just with what governments do, but with what government is.

To be sure, the ‘Attlee consensus’ had a constitutional dimension. Its adherents were as committed to the British unitary state, to the old, Whig-Radical doctrine of absolute parliamentary sovereignty, and to the conventions of individual and collective ministerial responsibility, as to Keynesian economics or Beveridgean welfare policies. But their constitutional commitments were hazy, inexplicit. They took the Victorian constitution which they had inherited for granted, and used it for their own purposes. They did not examine the assumptions on which it was based, or ask themselves whether those assumptions made continued sense. Still less did they examine the values embodied in it, or ask themselves whether those values were compatible with the values which they proclaimed in the economic and social spheres.

Hence, our present troubles. At first sight, it is true, the ‘Attlee consensus’ was destroyed by economic failure, not by disagreements over the constitution. But economic failure is only part of the story, and I do not believe that it is the most important part. Economic failure has been self-reinforcing, and one of the reasons why it has reinforced itself is that the Victorian constitution rested on more fragile foundations than the Attlee generation realised. Politicians have promised prosperity, and failed to deliver it. They have lost authority as a result; having lost authority, their promises have become even more exaggerated and their ability to realise them even more attenuated. The wider the gap between promise and performance, the more sharply public confidence has declined; the sharper the decline in public confidence, the more difficult it has become to bring promise and performance together. Though the process was set in motion by economic failure, it would not have gone as far or as fast as it has if the politicians’ authority had been more securely based at the outset. And the reasons why political authority was not securely based are to be found in the constitutional contradictions and ambiguities which the Attlee generation failed to resolve.

The most obvious of these contradictions is exposed in masterly fashion in Mr Vernon Bogdanor’s study of the debates over proportional representation and the popular referendum, which have been going on intermittently since the 19th century. The Whig-Radical doctrine of absolute parliamentary sovereignty, which lay at the heart of the Victorian constitution, dates from the struggles of the 17th-century Parliaments against the Stuart kings. Its origins are thus pre-democratic; and the attitudes to power and authority which it embodies are pre-democratic also. In the 19th century, however, it was given a democratic twist. The Crown in Parliament still enjoyed absolute and inalienable power. That power was still kingly power, suffused with the magic of monarchy. But it was now conferred by, and therefore presumably derived from, a democratic electorate. Parliament was sovereign because the people were sovereign, and because Parliament represented the people. Laws enacted by the Crown in Parliament were legitimate because the Members of Parliament who voted for them were elected by, and accountable to, their constituents. The executive acts of Government were legitimate because the members of the Government were accountable to Parliament and, through Parliament, to the nation.

Sovereignty, in short, went hand in hand with representation. The huge, potentially oppressive engine of parliamentary absolutism was legitimised by Parliament’s representativeness. Since Parliament represented the people, the argument ran, curbs on Parliament’s power would curb the people’s power; since democracy implied that the people should rule, curbing the people’s power would be undemocratic. Unfortunately, there was a flaw in the argument. As Mr Bogdanor shows, it was not clear who was represented or who did the representing. The Medieval House of Commons had represented communities – the shires and the boroughs – not individuals. This was still true of the unreformed House of Commons of the 18th century, and it was partially true of the reformed House of Commons of the early 19th. Indeed, we still pay lip service to the communal principle today. That is why a vote in the Highlands of Scotland is worth more than a vote in the London suburbs, why Members of Parliament refer to each other in the Chamber by constituency rather than by name, and why it is a political asset, even for a senior national politician, to be considered ‘a good constituency MP’.

So far, so harmless. The trouble is that the communal principle – or, at any rate, the communal principle as we have interpreted it – has further consequences, which are not harmless at all. As well as paying lip-service to the communal principle, we pay lip-service to the democratic principle of equal political rights. But that principle confers rights on individuals, not communities, and equality of individual rights implies that individuals should be represented equally. Natural communities, however, rarely contain equal numbers of individuals, and, in a mobile society, equal communities do not remain equal for long. If communities are represented equally, individuals cannot be; if individuals are represented equally, communities cannot be.

In characteristic British fashion, however, we have run away from this logic. We have tried to have the best of both worlds, and we have ended by having the worst. We give equal representation to pieces of territory. But they are not communities. They are the artificial, historyless and transient creatures of the Boundary Commissioners, with no meaning to the people who live in them and no function apart from returning a Member of Parliament to Westminster. They generally contain roughly equal populations when they first appear on the electoral map. Since the Boundary Commissioners cannot keep up with the movement of population, however, they soon become unequal. Despite all our efforts, individuals are not represented equally, and natural communities – communities with which people can identify and to which they acknowledge loyalty – are hardly represented at all. As a crowning irony, each of our Boundary Commission-created pseudo-communities is represented by a single Member of Parliament, returned in a first-past-the-post election – with the inevitable result that minority opinions are grossly under-represented, and that the majority party in the House of Commons has almost always received a minority of votes in the polling booths.

Our attempt to combine equal community representation with equal individual representation has, in short, produced distorted representation. The governments which have tried unsuccessfully to halt the economic decline of the last thirty years have nearly all commanded majorities in the House of Commons. They have made full use of the vast armoury of weapons which the doctrine of absolute parliamentary sovereignty gives to a British government. They have swept away ancient shires and boroughs, forced local authorities to make unwanted changes in their schools, imposed, repealed and reimposed statutory controls on wages, founded new universities and driven them to the verge of bankruptcy, created and abolished Quangos, drastically restricted and as drastically enlarged the powers of trade unions and fiddled endlessly with the systems of company taxation and investment incentives. They have done all these things in the name of the sovereign people. But their claims to speak for the people have been bogus, for their majorities in Parliament have been sent there by minorities of the electorate. They have been dwarves masquerading as giants, yet armed with a giant’s power. It would be hard to devise a better way of depriving them of authority, or of ensuring that their economic policies failed.

That contradiction could be resolved fairly easily by proportional representation, and it is a good sign that the SDP-Liberal Alliance has put proportional representation at the top of its list of priorities. But there are deeper and more damaging contradictions in the constitution which the Attlee generation inherited and passed on to us, to which proportional representation would make no difference and about which the Alliance has yet to speak. Not only have we failed to decide whom Parliament should represent: even more fatally, we have failed to decide what Parliament should do. On one level, on the level of proclaimed ideals, we believe in parliamentary democracy. We want a strong and vigorous House of Commons, which will hold ministers to account, scrutinise the executive, make laws and perhaps even make governments. We applaud the gritty independence of a George Cunningham or a Tam Dalyell; we rejoice when a backbench revolt emasculates a Government measure; we call for stronger committees, more independent of the Whips; we deplore the mania for secrecy that dominates Whitehall. But on a different level, on the level of actual behaviour, we do not believe in parliamentary democracy at all. We believe in plebiscitary democracy. We want a strong and decisive government, able to force the measures for which it has received a mandate onto the statute book and in secure control of its Parliamentary supporters. We mock governments which cannot behave in this way, and regard their inability to do so as a reason for throwing them out at the next election. We treat committee work as trivial and dull, make no effort to report or understand it, and reserve our attention for Front Bench gladiatorial combat on the floor of the House. More insidiously still, we insist that a backbencher’s first duty is to follow his leaders, reward those who do and punish those who do not.

The Parliamentary reformers of the Sixties, of whom I was one, imagined that we could have our cake and eat it. We believed – or thought we believed – in parliamentary rather than in plebiscitary democracy. We fought for a stronger Parliament, with a greater capacity to scrutinise the executive. But we were still imbued with the Croslandite revisionism of the Fifties. We felt instinctively that the social changes we sought could come only through the state, and we therefore wanted a strong state, with a strong government in control of it. With what seems in retrospect extraordinary naiveté, we thought that these aims were compatible. Indeed, we even thought that they were, in some miraculous way, complementary: that by strengthening Parliament’s ability to hold the executive to account we would somehow make it easier for reforming ministers to carry through their reforms.

We were wrong. Parliamentary democracy and plebiscitary democracy are enemies, not allies. If Parliament is strengthened, ministers – whether reforming or otherwise – will not find it easier to have their way: they will find it more difficult. We have, in fact, to choose. If we wish, we can choose plebiscitary democracy. There is a respectable case for it; and, although it is alien to our traditions, it is not in the least alien to our practice. Indeed, if we make that choice all we shall have to do is to allow the system to go on developing as it has developed over the last eighty years.

Or we can choose parliamentary democracy. If we do, we shall have to set out consciously and deliberately to change our whole pattern of development. We shall have to make it possible for Members of Parliament to build up their own power bases in their constituencies, independent of their parties. We shall have to scrap, or at least to redefine, the doctrine of ministerial responsibility. We shall have to develop a new relationship between Whitehall and Westminster, in which officials see themselves as the servants of Parliament rather than of their ministers. We shall have to have a different conception of the political party and of the proper relationships between the party’s activists, voters and elected representatives. Above all, we shall have to have a different conception of the state, and of the relationship between state action and social change. Instead of the old Fabian (and Marxist) notion that society can be reformed only by taking control of the state and imposing the reforms from the top down, we shall have to recognise that lasting reforms occur only when society wants them to, and that the state is only one – and not necessarily the most important – of the agencies through which social attitudes can be changed. I am not sure if we are ready to take this road. If we are not, it is hard to see how a new consensus can come into being.