15 April 2005


Tom Baldwin and Greg Hurst report in The Times today (click here) that the government has admitted secretly setting up a review of the first-past-the-post electoral system for the House of Commons. They go on rather about how the Lib Dems are miffed about not having been informed – but the very fact that Labour is thinking again about electoral reform is highly significant.

The party came to power in 1997 promising a review of the electoral system for the Commons to be followed by a referendum on its proposals, and Tony Blair entrusted the review to an Independent Commission on the Voting System chaired by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, the report of which duly appeared in 1998 (click here). It recommended a hybrid quasi-PR system for elections known as AV-plus, using the alternative vote to elect 500 MPs in single-member constituencies and a top-up system to elect another 150 from counties or cities to ensure greater (though not absolute) proportionality. (Under the alternative vote, voters mark their ballot papers not with a single “x” but by numbering their preferences 1, 2, 3 and so on. If no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of first preferences, the bottom-placed candidate is eliminated and his or her second preferences are added to the other candidates’ totals, and so on until one candidate tops 50 per cent.)

But Blair was opposed to even the modest move towards PR that AV-plus would have represented, most of the rest of the cabinet and a majority of the parliamentary Labour Party agreed with him, and in any case Labour had a massive majority – so the Jenkins report was quietly shelved and the referendum promise kicked into touch. It took a massive battle by supporters of electoral reform to prevent the possibility being ruled out completely in Labour’s 2001 manifesto.

That electoral reform is now being revisited could simply be a token gesture to rally the small but vocal constitutional reform lobby to the Labour cause. But my hunch is that it reflects real worries at the top of the Labour Party about the likelihood of the Tories winning under FPTP in 2009 or 2010. Which is of course a cynical self-interested reason to consider a long-overdue reform – but what the hell.

The danger is that Labour decides to drop the Jenkins proposals and go for AV alone in single-member constituencies – an electoral system that would mean lots of MPs being elected as “least bad” candidates but has nothing to do with PR. We shall see. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the pro-PR Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform now has a rather impressive list of supporters among Labour MPs and candidates (click here). If Blair does opt for AV alone, we can at least expect a bit of an argument in the PLP.

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