Why we should support Brown’s push for a constitution and AV


7:08 pm - February 2nd 2010

by Guest    


      Share on Tumblr

contribution by Lisa Harker

Most of the reaction to today’s speech to the Prime Minister’s ippr speech on constitutional reform has taken the view that it was an exercise in political manoeuvring.

Far from ‘new politics’ it is old Gordon, out to ‘wrong foot’ and create ‘dividing lines’ between Labour and its opponents. Even those more sympathetic to the need for reform, have adopted a weary tone that these ideas, coming so late in the day, are going to make very little difference.

Some of this is fair enough. Laying out a new ‘constitutional settlement’ would have had much more moral force if the Prime Minister had made it when he was new to office and secure in power. Coming now, in the dog days of this parliament with the public still fuming at the expenses scandal, it smacks of expediency.

Of course, the real pity is that when he took over at Number Ten, Gordon Brown did have constitutional reform at the top of his agenda for change. The problem was that he didn’t act on it.

Other issues – notably the economic crisis – piled up in front of him and it was only when duck houses, moats and all the rest forced his hand that the PM returned to the issue.

But while it can be argued that the Prime Minister’s journey to today’s speech has been slow, twisting and tactical, it would be a profound mistake to miss the opportunity that it presents to push forward the reform agenda.

AV may be far from perfect for those (like ippr) who want genuine proportional representation, but this is the closest we’ve come to getting electoral reform put to the people (who deserve the chance to have a say on this).

Once there it will be hard to remove. For whatever the Conservatives think about the circumstances in which a 2011 referendum has been proposed, if this parliament votes for it, it surely must go ahead. If the Tories want FPP they can campaign for it, and if the public want it they can vote for it.

Mr Brown’s calls for a written constitution also need to be picked up and pushed on.

If there is to be real change in how this country does politics we need citizens to ‘own’ the reform process – which is why we have long argued for a citizen’s assembly to be convened to come up with changes which would command public trust and enthusiasm. The public should not just be part of this process, they should be central to it.

It is too easy to be cynical and world weary about political reform. It is just that attitude which has led to the dangerous disengagement of the public from politics.

However the Prime Minister got to this point, and whatever his motives, we should take him at his word and demand that this time real reform takes place.

———–
Lisa Harker is co-director of the think tank ippr.

    Share on Tumblr   submit to reddit  


About the author
This is a guest post.
· Other posts by


Story Filed Under: Blog ,Labour party ,Local Government ,Our democracy ,Reform ,Westminster

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.


Reader comments


It’s strange. I couldn’t disagree with most of what Brown said, I just wish he’d apply it more widely.

For instance, when he spoke of the ‘unelected’ House of Lords, my thoughts turned to Mr van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton. Brown supports MPs getting more than 50% of the their constituents vote, but he’s happy to allow a President of the European Council and High Representative to be selected by 27 people. Bizarre..

I disagree with referenda and disagree with all forms of PR (although AV is the least worst imo), so this announcement is hardly welcome to me.

But the idea that this is gerrymandering, or political posturing, is daft. Brown clearly wants to do this. Labour could easily be worse off under AV, and it won’t affect the next election anyway. And there are no votes in electoral reform. The parliamentary time could easily be used to do something much more populist.

Brown clearly wants to do this. Labour could easily be worse off under AV

Don’t think Labour would be worse off under AV – but that is not an argument to oppose it. All politicians are to blame for increasing apathy and they complain about it but then oppose any measure that gives voters more power.

Also, if Brown clearly wanted to do this – why didn’t he do it when he published the original paper on Governance of Britain? That was 2 years ago!

I think it’s now too late. Sad really – but there needs to be a way of getting the Labour party now supporting this argument once and for all and putting the Tories on the defensive.

“why didn’t he do it when he published the original paper on Governance of Britain?”

Because there were other priorities, plenty of parliamentary time remaining, and he knew the referendum could never happen before this election anyhow. You have to understand how split the Labour Party is over this – I’d guess I’m in a minority, but I’d be shocked if the percentage of the Party in favour was any greater than 60%. Plenty of MPs against, too. This close to an election, Brown is now immune to leadership challenge, but forcing such a divisive issue on the Party when he was so weak would have been madness. I genuinely think he wants this and has gone as far as he could on it. If Labour are re-elected it’ll be easier for him, because he’s not going to lead the Party into a second election anyway. He’ll also have a mandate. If Labour isn’t re-elected, the Tories have to make the decision not to have a referendum and reverse the decision in parliament. In this context, tell me how he could reasonably have gone further.

5. Sunder Katwala

2- tim f AV isn’t a form of PR

I agree with this, and have set out my arguments at Next Left. I would be quite happy with AV+ as well as with AV, but I think those who make some fundamental differentiation between the two systems are considerably over-egging it.
http://www.nextleft.org/2010/02/five-reasons-to-be-cheerful-about.html

I think my fellow electoral reformers often simulltaneously overestimate the chances of success in winning a PR referendum (the big challenge is to stop the ideas “coalition”, “power-sharing”, negotiation “compromise” are at the heart of this, and being dirty words in the British political culture, though the reforms of the last decade are shifting that slowly) and yet also underestimate the cultural shift in politics and campaigning we would see with AV (simply because the results don’t look that different in the aggregate), which would be one way(with many others) to generate a more pluralistic politics which would change the strategic envitonment for many of the people and causes who take part in LC discussions.

Preferential voting makes all sorts of more pluralistic politics both more likely and incentivises it (on right and left, cf UKIP-Tory right, not just Lab-Grn, and perhaps LDems). Listen to LibDems and Greens bickering and you realise just how much the current system forces parties to be especially antagonistic to those to whom they are ideologically closest, which is precisely what LC should be against.

Of course, those who are for STV can make similar points, but I do think all preferential systems (AV, AV+, STV) are considerably better than non-preferential systems (including AMS as well as FPTP) for the reason that they make pluralism necessary in the campaign, while some forms of PR don’t do that, and only look for it in post-election negotiations

And all assumptions that voting behavious would be pretty static is an unlikely assumption. (Mike Tuffney, London LibDems was good on this and generally at Saturday’s conference: he was very candid at expecting LibDem first preferences to fall, as they do in PR elections).

There’s a lot of talk about cynicism, world-weariness, apathy and so on, and how the electorate is gripped by it.

Through this reform are we trying to convince such people that they have a point and we’ve fixed things, or that they’re wrong and things can change?

Either way, I don’t think the first past the post system is what’s to blame.

Expenses, war, higher taxes on the poor and middling, constant spin and a dozen other reasons are to blame – and these things won’t be fixed by switching to a different electoral system.

Encouraging people to ‘own’ the reform process, as it relates to choosing between alternative electoral systems, will not end the cynicism either; whatever is chosen, when it churns out the same policies, cynicism will endure.

7. Sunder Katwala

The Labour PLP can quite easily coalesce around this. A lot of the opposition is people who don’t really know or think about the debate, and are tribally Labour and first-past-the-post, and don’t really think about esoteric topics like the difference between AV and PR. The number who have a fundamental problem

One piece of gossip: I have heard it said inside parliament that last week the whips were reporting an approx 8-7 split on the backbenches in favour of the specific narrow point which has been the focus of the last fortnight: do you legislate for the AV referendum, or do you put it in the manifesto. But that was before there was a Cabinet decision, and when Gordon Brown had not yet come down firmly on one side or the other.

But that may also reflect the fact that the whips office have been regarded by the reformers as being exceptionally open to backbench dissent on this one, with some reformers claiming Nick Brown (partly for Newcastle political reasons) as Chief Whip seemed to be encouraging oppoisiton to the decision the Cabinet was taking, more than support for it.

#7 I don’t think it’s fair to categorise the opposition in that way. (ref earlier, I know AV isn’t technically PR, but didn’t want to use the phrase “electoral reform” as I’m in favour of early voting, mobile voting etc and not everyone might understand electoral reform in the narrow technical sense)

We had a long debate in my CLP about this, with all the arguments aired, and the result was a narrow win for the pro-change lobby (that’s with AV lumped in with PR; I think had it been FPTP/AV against PR, PR would’ve lost). I know plenty of people elsewhere in the Party who are clued up and have listened to the debate ad nauseum. We just have a different opinion from you.

9. Sunder Katwala

tim f – fair enough. accept there is an element of caricature, though the whips’ could not be described as enthusiastic on this

What I have struggled to hear is a clear articulation of what those who are FPTP not AV is what they feel is lost in the shift to AV. Clearly, people who take that view can explain why they don’t want PR, eg in not wanting coalition governments or multi-member constituencies. I think that helps to explain why a great many traditional FPTPers have come to the view over the last 2 years (like Jack Straw) that AV keeps most of what is valued in the current system.

There are some specific cases where people have a particular local environment, eg a very few Lab-Lib contests, but I struggle to hear any coherent general, national argument on the merits (other than the “is this a priority” objection to its salience).

Wouldn’t Labour have had an even bigger majority in 1997 had AV been in place? Seems that the system has the potential to be less proportional than FPTP.

Dave Semple @ 6 is right.

According to the Power Inquiry, the reasons for disengagement are that:

citizens do not feel that the processes of formal democracy offer them enough influence over political decisions – this includes party members who feel they have no say in policy-making and are increasingly disaffected;
the main political parties are widely perceived to be too similar and lacking in principle;
the electoral system is widely perceived as leading to unequal and wasted votes;
political parties and elections require citizens to commit to too broad a range of policies;
many people feel they lack information or knowledge about formal politics; and,
voting procedures are regarded by some as inconvenient and unattractive.

The Philips review of party funding had similar conclusions.

In what way do the proposals address these reasons for disengagement?

1. “but he’s happy to allow a President of the European Council and High Representative to be selected by 27 people. Bizarre..”

The president of the European Council is a very different job to the President of the US, for example. The EU President is more of a representative of those elected already by the people, not hugely powerful, more of a “mediator” in relations with other superpower bodies. It’s not really fair to compare.

“Seems that the system has the potential to be less proportional than FPTP.”

Yet bizarrely also more what the people would prefer. How many votes were lost in a Lib Dem/Labour fight that meant a Tory MP got in despite the fact that neither Labour nor Lib Dems would like that Tory as their representative?

Of course AV is not ideal, but on a constituency level it means the least worse candidate is your elected representative, at least giving you some semblance of fair and representative support in parliament. This is better on a local level than FPTP, even if it can produce less (and more) proportional parliaments.

I also agree with 6. Dave Semple, but AV potentially not solving (even in part) the apathy of voters is no reason not to try something new.

We’ve all argued electoral reform to the death around here anyway, but the only thing that concerns me are those that oppose this change because they want STV and nothing else. It seems highly illogical to even try to entertain the notion that by stonewalling a change to the system will result in someone laying STV out on the table as an option as an alternative to FPTP, equally it’d be amazing if people took the leap from FPTP to STV given the negative press that some can use from EU election anecdotes.

13. Stuart White

All those in the Labour party who oppose changing the voting system, and who particularly oppose PR, should take a look at an important paper by the political scientists David Soskice and Torben Iversen. Its called ‘Electoral Institutions and the Politics of Coalitions: Why Some Democracies Redistribute More than Others’, and its published in the American Political Science Review 100 (2), 2006, pp.165-181.

The gist of the article is that PR systems give you higher social spending and lower economic inequality than Westminster-style majoritarian systems. It thereby demolishes – or at least seriously challenges – the assumption that I suspect underlies a lot of opposition to PR in Labour ranks: the assumption that prospects for progressive policies are maximised in the long-run by having an electoral system in which Labour has a fighting chance of forming a parliamentary majority. That’s a piece of Labourist romanticism which – so Soskice and Iversen argue – has no basis in fact.

AV is, of course, not PR. I’ll support a shift to AV as an improvement on the status quo. But I very much hope it is only a short-lived step on the way to PR.

In the meantime, to those Tom Harris charcaters in the Labour party who want to present electoral reform as an issue of relevance only to bourgeois liberal Guardian-readers (like me), I say: how dare you oppose a system that – on the evidence of Soskice and Iversen’s study – is better for social spending and economic equality?

@3 Sunny H
“All politicians are to blame for increasing apathy and they complain about it but then oppose any measure that gives voters more power.
Spot-on.

This morning I was reading a piece by the excellent Mark Steel in the Independent. It was focused on the similarities between Labour and Tories, the lack of proper choice, the big parties that are the same, both discredited, only touches and tones, blah blah…

Stuff that you hear every day off most ordinary people, the only exception being partisan party members (which is not many people). The obvious, blatant reason is the electoral system, but it’s rarely stated clearly and when you talk to people very few are aware of that.

We, someone, need to come up with a way of making it a popular issue. How, however, is the question.

We’ve all argued electoral reform to the death around here anyway, but the only thing that concerns me are those that oppose this change because they want STV and nothing else.

It’s a tricky one… I’d prefer AV to FPTP, but I think I’d prefer STV over either. Since these sort of major shake-ups tend to be once-a-generation at most, I think adopting AV now would actually make it significantly less likely for STV to be adopted in the foreseeable future.

I’m very much undecided on this one at the moment.

Lee,

I also agree with 6. Dave Semple, but AV potentially not solving (even in part) the apathy of voters is no reason not to try something new.

I didn’t understand from the OP what the point is of trying this particular ‘something’. I’m not saying there is no point.

17. Alisdair Cameron

Too little, too late, insincere and picking the worst option out there. In other words a classic Brown manoeuvre.

One event which could well kick start a movement towards electoral reform would be a hung parliament resulting in a Labour Lib-Dem coalition.

While a welcomed GB’s speach I sincerely hope that voters who support it and would like to see further meassures of reform will use their heads and vote tactically for the Lib Dems, Labor don’t deserve another majority and have shown over he last couple of terms that they cannot be trusted to legislate on thewir own – and it’s not just them, the ligislature NEEDS to be scrutinised and accountable and unless we were to see radical direct democracy introduced the only way this is going to happen is if dis-proportion is tackled and coalition governing becomes a norm.

Join the campaign to HANG PARLIAMENT here:-

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=215927229917

Stuart White @ 13 makes the most important point here. PR is an essential element in creating real social *democracy*.

AV will do absolutely nothing to animate a shift of the sort described by the authors of the article he mentions. It seems to be more about renovating the perceived moral authority of the individual parliamentarian. It’s a make-over.

A version of the article can be found here:

http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~iversen/Iversen-Soskice2004d.pdf

The article simply looks at the dynamics of the right-left split in various countries – doesn’t concern itself with the question of national values per se – of how the worldview of a ‘conservative’ Swede might compare to that of a ‘liberal’ American. I’d suggest that by giving the advantage to clear-cut ideological debate and measurable practical results, at the expense of fuzzy philosophical and moral generalities, emotional manipulation or the relative charisma of competing leaders, PR can’t help but nudge Britain in a more progressive direction; reality’s liberal bias, people’s unarticulated real needs, etc….

This is a step forward. Though I personally prefer STV, AV at least means that we won’t get plurality MPs. I would actually welcome having more than one MP per constituency; the competition to represent our interests may well spur them to greater contituent representation and less party delegation.

However, I agree with #6 and #11. In particular, the feeling from party members and the populace that they are far, far away from any meaningful decision making. Couldn’t agree more. More meaningful reform would be to reform cabinet and the PM. GB did propose to strip the PM of some of the royal prerogatives, but where is that now? Over the last few decades, especially with Thatcher and Blair, we have seen the PM sidestep cabinet and the party as a policy making machine and have a coterie of unelected advisors and hangers on who direct and announce policy.

I support Electoral reform, but we need parliamentary reform that begins to strip the PM of powers and hand it back to parties, members and ultimately the population. Reforms to empower parliamentary committees, strip the PM of powers and give a greater role to cabinet may not immediately give power to the general population, but they stop the rot of centralisation and begin to spread the power again.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    We should support Brown's push for a constitution and AV http://bit.ly/aCxZoj

  2. James Cowley

    RT @libcon: We should support Brown's push for a constitution and AV http://bit.ly/aCxZoj

  3. GuyAitchison

    RT @pickledpolitics: Ippr's Lisa Harker says on @libcon that we should support Brown's push for a constitution and AV: http://bit.ly/aCxZoj

  4. Gareth Colwell

    RT @libcon: We should support Brown's push for a constitution and AV http://bit.ly/aCxZoj

  5. michaeljflexer

    We should support Brown's push for a constitution and AV http://bit.ly/aCxZoj (via @libcon)

  6. Kevin Maguire

    Let's play by Aussie Rules http://bit.ly/9pM7gk

  7. Robert Wooding

    RT @Kevin_Maguire Let's play by Aussie Rules http://bit.ly/9pM7gk

  8. Dan Smith

    RT @Kevin_Maguire: Let's play by Aussie Rules http://bit.ly/9pM7gk

  9. Naadir Jeewa

    Reading: Why we should support Brown’s push for a constitution and AV: contribution by Lisa Harker
    Most of the rea… http://bit.ly/bavRBF

  10. sunny hundal

    Ippr's Lisa Harker says on @libcon that we should support Brown's push for a constitution and AV: http://bit.ly/aCxZoj

  11. uberVU - social comments

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by libcon: We should support Brown’s push for a constitution and AV http://bit.ly/aCxZoj





Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.