Lack of respect for MPs is blamed on first-past-the-post

By Ben Russell
Published June 4th 2005 in The Independent
Voters will not reconnect with Parliament unless the electoral system is reformed to ensure their votes count, Geoff Hoon has been warned after blaming poor media coverage for declining levels of respect for politicians.

Campaigners spoke out after Mr Hoon, the new Leader of the Commons, dismissed those pressing for reform as failing to "grasp an essential point" about the low standing of MPs. Mr Hoon said he was seeking talks with newspaper editors to improve coverage of the Commons, and blamed parts of the media for acting to "encourage disrespect for Parliament".

In an article for The Guardian, Mr Hoon warned of the "disturbing" trend for young people to shun elections but suggested that electoral reform and other changes would not reverse the decline in respect for Parliament.

"Those who argue that changing the electoral system, providing more TV cameras in the Commons or dropping some of the ceremonial ritual of Parliament will help, fail to grasp an essential point," he wrote.

"We should not view the challenges facing Parliament in isolation from the fundamental changes that are shifting the balance in other elements of society

"To encourage disrespect for Parliament, as some in the media have done in the absence of a real parliamentary opposition, risks fostering a deeper malaise.

"Certainly the media have an important role to play - scrutinising, questioning, satirising - but in a way that does not fundamentally damage respect of all of our institutions."

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, said Mr Hoon was right to highlight the need to reconnect politics with the public.

But he warned: "Without proportional representation many voters will continue to feel that they have no direct influence on MPs because in so many constituencies they feel their votes simply do not count."

Ken Ritchie, the chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, acknowledged that revamping the voting system alone would not remove distrust of politicians, but he called for reform to end the deeply adversarial nature of British politics.

"We have never claimed that by changing the voting system everything will become perfect," he said. "Of course there are other things to do. But if you get a change in the voting system that makes Parliament more representative, both in party terms and of the country more generally, you will have a system which encourages politicians to act together rather than acting in a terribly abusive and confrontational way."

Campaigners are dismayed by the membership of the cabinet committee responsible for considering electoral reform, after most of the main advocates of change were denied seats.

Peter Hain, a supporter of additional voting systems, is the main pro-reform figure on the committee, which is chaired by John Prescott, a long-time supporter of the current first-past-the-post system. Reformers, including Baroness Amos, Tessa Jowell and Patricia Hewitt, are all absent.