Robert Mcilveen

Brown’s empty PR promise

Brown's empty PR promise
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Gordon Brown's proposal to bring in a referendum on electoral reform has a beautiful symmetry with Tony Blair's pledge to do exactly the same thing in the 1997 manifesto. That pledge never came to pass, once Mr Blair discovered the usefulness of a majority of 178, compared to dealing with the Lib Dems all the time as coalition partners. And Mr Brown's conversion to electoral reform has the mirror-image motivation: making the system kinder to losing parties has a certain attraction, if you are heading into opposition.

Debates about electoral reform are rather strange. A very small number of very passionate people can talk for hours about the minutiae of different electoral systems and how they can radically change politics. Yet the question is rarely asked whether or not it would have much impact. Electoral reform has been mooted as a response to the expenses scandal, to the prospect of hung parliaments and to general concerns about the quality of our democracy.

Let me take these in turn. The electoral system has almost no bearing on the level of financial or moral skulduggery in politics. Consider the party-funding scandal which brought down Helmut Kohl in the 1990s, a far, far worse scandal than our MPs' expenses, and in a largely proportional system. It would actually be harder to get rid of incumbent MPs who have abused the system under some proportional systems than under our present one. First past the post has the wonderful possibility to "throw the rascals out" if they transgress, even in safe seats.

Hung parliaments happen occasionally - both Labour and the Conservatives have experienced winning more votes but still losing in terms of seats, and both have had to govern with tiny majorities. But that doesn't mean that coalitions are an improvement. Arguments about the stability of governments are familiar and compelling; arguments about legitimacy less so. Just because (to take the 2005 election) Labour's 35.5 % share of the vote and the Liberal Democrats' 22.1% add up to 57.6% does not mean that over half the electorate support that government - there will be plenty of Labour voters who despise the Lib Dems and vice versa. Backroom deals after the election exclude voters just as much as a non-proportional electoral system does - no-one actually votes for a messy compromise because what coalition will form under what agreements in advance of an election is unknowable.

The quality of our democracy is probably the most attractive argument for reform - surely we would get less confrontational, more deliberative politics with an alternative electoral system? This of course, assumes we want less confrontational and more deliberative politics. Even assuming that, electoral reform is neither necessary nor sufficient. Coalition government externalises the deal-making and backroom politics that goes on within single-party coalitions, rather than changing the fundamental nature of politics. Confrontation changes its form to be more subsumed but that does not mean that is removed.

Electoral reform will not happen, under any government. But even if it did, it would change relatively little about how we do politics. Parties might split or re-align, but the fundamental left vs right debate would stay. Dreams (nightmares?) of a permanent Lab-Lib coalition are not going to come to pass under any electoral system - just look at Scotland. Even within the realm of electoral change there are plenty of better targets for reform - the European Parliament elections have the worst possible system available, while the House of Lords doesn't even have elections.

Brown's pledge of a referendum should be seen for what it is: an empty promise which would have little effect even it was fulfilled. The urgent task for the next government is to address the real deficiencies in our system - expenses, over-powerful whips and party machines, lack of transparency - not fiddling with the seating plan.

Robert McIlveen is a Research Fellow at Policy Exchange, and has a PhD in party organisation and election strategy.