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The Guardian

August 1, 2003

Summary:  An interesting and intelligent editorial in favor of full representation (proportional representation) in Britain.  The author argues that retaining the plurality (first-past-the-post) system is the only thing that will allow a minority-supported, majority-opposed Conservative government to come to power in the future. 

 

Away with these tribes: Only a complete change in how we elect our leaders will put the trust, and excitement, back into politics

By Polly Toynbee

August 1, 2003

 

Tomorrow marks the day. Labour will have been in power longer than ever before, a remarkable achievement already discounted and dismissed, but that makes it no less extraordinary. Does this herald a social-democratic 21st century, a left-of-centre dominance to equal the Conservative hegemony over the 20th century? That is another question. Even if Labour wins the next election with ease, this may only be a longer-than-usual freak interlude in the country's conservative fate. As yet the government has not done many vital things necessary to secure the future. At his final press conference, Tony Blair said it was time to go on holiday and reflect on the current political culture. (He did say the media should do likewise, but the idea of the Mail's Paul Dacre contemplating any such thing in his holiday shorts is beyond imagining.) It is public trust, and the lack of it, that is on the government's mind. Once lost, how is it regained? Mori is reassuring: people may despise and mistrust all politicians, but for that very reason they do not vote at elections on the honesty issue. They vote on "capable", "good in a crisis" and "understanding the problems facing Britain". On these Blair is home and dry, with his standing where Mrs Thatcher's was two years ahead of her 1987 victory. So what's the problem?

 

It is more existential. Victory may be all but certain, but why is so little love lost between Labour and the people? In this climate, what hope for the social-democratic century? People will vote in even fewer numbers next time, though most academic research suggests voters will be back whenever there is a real cliff-hanger choice. So is democracy to stay on

hold until the Conservatives are next near to power? Or should voters be given proper choices of a more sophisticated kind now? A lot of hot air is being breathed about "new localism" as the answer to a disengaged electorate. But the idea that those who won't even vote in local elections will turn out for incomprehensible ballots for foundation hospital boards, choosing from lists of unknown names for obscure and powerless functions, is political anorak wishful thinking. 
 

There is only one high-voltage supercharge to democracy that would change the jaundiced way voters rightly perceive their current minimal chance of influencing how they are governed - and that is proportional representation. Give people the right to define their votes more precisely instead of voting for baggy coalitions fixed behind closed doors. Let

pro-European Tories have a voice alongside leftwing Labour, hippy Greens and, yes, even fascists might get one (unlikely) boot in the door.

 

Under his palm tree, Tony Blair should look back on his broken near-promise to Paddy Ashdown and consider that trust is best engendered now by sharing and diffusing his own absolute power. It would also secure the future for the nation's natural centre-left majority. It was primarily his own party that blocked PR, though it is the one sure way to deny a rightwing Conservative ascendancy from seizing power again with minority support.  Only a Conservative party that moved considerably further towards the centre than Thatcher or Major could ever hold the reins under a PR system.

 

A distinguished leftish Tory MP and former minister told me he thought in 1997 that his party was finished forever, never to regain power, because he assumed Labour would bring in PR. But once he saw Tony Blair give in to the tribal and frankly stupid opposition from his own ranks, he knew that the Tories would live to rule another day. Under the first-past-the-post system, the pendulum always does swing back. It is an iron law that all

governments eventually run out of steam, sooner or later. This ex-minister's own career was over, and it would take time, but his party had escaped the one hammer blow that would have forced it to break up into its very different wings to form future coalitions with other parties.

 

So why did Labour MPs baulk when Blair at least partly intended to bring it in? Ancient local rivalries with Lib Dems made Labour MPs fail to grasp the historic opportunity. They detest the way the Lib Dems fight on different policies depending on who their opponents are, despising their "opportunism" and so on. (Different pots and kettles here.) This is petty stuff. On key policies - taxing the rich, opposing the war - most Labour

backbenchers, and ministers too, often lean with more sympathy towards the Lib Dems in parliament than towards their own front bench.

 

Now is the time for Labour people who do support PR to push forward and make the case in earnest. Some of the elephants lying across the tracks in this project have departed the scene - several first-past-the-post adamants such as John Edmonds have retired. There are many signs that those who rejected it for bad old reasons are thinking again and seeing the

possibilities for a better politics.

 

PR would secure a centre to centre-left government as the nation's natural majority and its rightful style of government: Thatcher was always strongly opposed by a majority. Only Labour's unfitness to govern during her years made a coalition of the left impossible. How times have changed. There is now no more than tribal tradition to separate Labour and Lib Dems. Coalitions under a new PR system would add the missing spice of radicalism to future governments.

 

The problem now is that the very reason why Blair himself cooled towards PR is the very reason why many in his party might look on it with new favour.  When it came to war in Afghanistan, Blair thought he saw that weak coalition governments in Europe were unfit to fight. But that need for a strong national cross-party will before going to war might be exactly why Labour MPs should now consider government by consensus a better option than by prime ministerial diktat.

 

Trust in existing institutions is lost in this individualist and pluralist age, so traditional party loyalty is fading. Choice between parties that represent something closer to what each voter thinks is the only way to re-connect people to the electoral process. "Strong government" has become mistrusted: everyone knows its members are dragooned into obedience instead of speaking their minds. Mori finds that these days, unlike 20 years ago,

voters trust MPs more if they speak their minds honestly than admire them for silent party loyalty. Open coalitions, between those with defined but different positions who come to policy compromises in public, better suits a mistrustful populace unfooled by false shows of unity. This exaggerated, cynical mistrust of politics is mainly the fault of the press, Mori finds, although in polls people deny the media's strong influence.

 

Trusting a people grown so impatient and unreasonably suspicious of all politicians may be difficult. But in the end trusting voters to make fine-tuned political choices, instead of offering them ready-made uneasy coalitions, will engender more trust from them in a transparent distribution of power. PR may be untidy, but it is grown-up politics for a grown-up electorate.

 

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