Without change, progressives will fight each other

By John Denham
Published May 19th 2005 in The Independent
Although the election result has boosted electoral reformers, it is going to take a lot more than skewed results to promote real change. The key does not lie in arguments about fairness or democratic legitimacy but in the clear-headed calculation of the best prospects for progressive change in Britain.

Sure, there will be some people for whom a decline in political engagement will justify reform. Others will react against sheer unfairness; the gross disparity between votes and seats. But most of these people probably support reform anyway. The prospect of change depends on what is going on in the hearts and heads of politicians. These are people whose central aim is the acquisition and use of power and whose active consent will be needed for any reform.

Contrary to popular belief, most of us are in politics to make a difference. We want to promote a vision of the future; the set of values we want our society to share. For most active politicians, the first question about the voting system is whether it gives them the opportunity to do so.

Most, of course, would like an active participatory democracy. A minority, perhaps substantial, would say it was an essential part of their vision for Britain. But many believe that electoral reformers overstate their claims that greater activity and participation would necessarily follow a changed electoral system

A fairer system might encourage more engagement. If every vote counted, we would pull back a bit from the "politics as a spectator sport" of the last election, with every computerised effort and pound focused on the marginal seats. But it could, as Jack Straw argued recently, entrench an out-of-touch political elite - vulnerable, as in the Netherlands - to the surge of populist extremism. Electoral reform may be part of the answer to disengagement but, in my view, it will only turn out to be small part.

For many in Labour "first-past-the-post" is attractive because it does deliver a workable majority. It gave us the chance to implement the changes in public services and family incomes of the past few years. We reformers need to understand the power of this attraction if we want to make the case for change. Bluntly, too few people will support a different system unless we can show that our ability to create the kind of society we want will be enhanced, and not hindered, by reform.

This is what makes the 2005 election so significant. Not its unfairness - we've seen that before - but the dilemma it has thrown up for progressive parties. Once again, more than 60 per cent voted for broadly progressive parties. Yet the landscape of first-past-the-post elections shows the progressive parties - Labour and the Liberal Democrats - in retreat in the face of the Tories. At the same time the battle between Labour and the Liberal Democrats has intensified.

Far from expressing a progressive consensus, the voting system is driving the progressive parties to fight each harder. The more this happens, the greater the possibility that the next government will be led - as it was in the 1980s - by the minority that supports the right.

This pattern is set to continue for the next four years. The Liberal Democrat/Labour battle will intensify in local elections in many parts of urban Britain. Labour is certain to end its benign tolerance of Liberal Democrat parliamentary footholds. Indeed, a fourth Labour term under first-past-the-post now depends on inflicting severe damage on the Liberal Democrats as a credible force. The Liberal Democrats in turn have obviously decided that their further advance depends on undermining Labour.

This sharp conflict allows the Tories space to regroup. As two broadly progressive parties fight for the same electoral space, the scope for radical, controversial or unpopular polices diminishes. So don't expect too much on pensions, climate change or sustainable development; expect a curbing of action on taxation or redistribution.

The real argument for electoral reform is that a more proportional system would encourage a different type of relationship between progressive parties. It is the best chance of reflecting, over the long term, the broadly progressive agenda of the British people.

Of course, the parties are not the same. Political differences are real. A bitter election has intensified party rivalries and fostered a whole new feeling of outrage at the duplicitous and downright dishonest tactics used by the other. An atmosphere which is singularly lacking in trust is not the best place to call for a more constructive relationship.

But to prevent the progressive parties following an electoral strategy that will reduce the chances of change, we will need some in each party willing to explore what a different relationship might feel like. Without this, electoral reformers will find their hopes dashed again.

John Denham MP is chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee