I was at that meeting at the Commons last night run by the Electoral Reform Society, and in the pub afterwards for the freaky experience of meeting a few other Britbloggers in the flesh. Open Democracy has a good write-up.
It was interesting, attempted to be realistic, had some bizarre moments, and Committee Room 14 (where I once had the fun of shaking Gorbachev by the hand, and where the Parliamentary Labour Party did their best show of loyalty to Blair earlier in the day) was packed to the rafters.
The overall message was simply that we have to make our voices heard, and the best way to do that at this early stage is keep as non-specific as possible. No suggestions of specific systems, just vocally pointing out the flaws in the current one. Build up the grass roots, push for local election reform first, and hope it builds momentum.
A few key quotes I managed to jot down:
Polly Toynbee (sub-par Guardian columnist)
- “gross distortion of the whole political process… you have to treat the electorate as if they were all idiots” (hadn’t noticed from your columns, Polly…)
- “for the moment what we need is a spirit of rebellion and revolutiion, the chartists, the suffragettes… money… huge demonstrations… from whatever side of the political process”
- “Let’s target every marginal seat with a member who doesn’t support reform” (this coming from the woman who only last week was telling her readers they were idiots if they voted tactically to send a message to Blair about Iraq… Just a tad hypocritical…)
Billy Bragg (Lefty singer/songwriter/activist)
- “there’s a huge amount of tribalism out there” (hence The Sharpener – trying to break down the ideological divide to enable proper, open debate with none of the usual petty protectiveness over individual party / ideological loyalties)
- “The Conservatives – how willing will they be to reform a system where a 1% extra share fo the vote gives them 30-40 extra seats? …we can’t kid them this is their way back to power”
- “take every opportunity to move the constitutional debate forwards”
Martin Linton (Labour MP)
- “people who were for the Labour government but not going to vote Labour… voting Green or Lib Dem in a constituency like mine does mean letting the Tories in” (he won after three recounts with a majority of just 163…)
- “probably the worst voting system in the world… we voted for a shift to the left and ended up with a shift to the right… it is the least sophisticated voting system in the world”
- “it has needed reform since the 1860s… you can’t toss a coin between three people”
- “of the people who voted Labour… 1 million said they were voting to keep another party our and 1 million Lib Dem voters said the same thing… so the popular vote is a very bad indication”
Chris Rennard (Lib Dem peer)
- “the simple fact we have to explain is that 36% of the electorate voted and got 55% of the MPs in parliament”
- “tactical voting is what a rotten and corrupt electoral system requires”
- “it is absolutely not about keeping the Conservative party out”
- “The House of Lords ironically is more representative of the country than the House of Commons” (too true – currently we need to reform the Commons before the Lords, I reckon – at least the Lords is doing its job properly)
Peter Tatchell (Gay/Human rights campaigner – speaking from the floor)
- “We need to learn the lesson of history for how people win democracy – chartists, suffragettes – the leaders will not listen to rational arguments… it is necessary to take to the streets, breaking the law”
In short, interesting, but with little in the way of concrete suggestions. There’s a vigil planned outside Downing Street on Tuesday 17th to coincide with the opening of parliament, but beyond that it looks like being a slow process.
Europhobia’s Matt chips in via email:
PR won’t get anywhere if it’s just mocking Blair and the tories. If it does that it links it too much to the political situation of today, and circumstances will change. If the Labour Party dumps Blair after next May’s elections, and the tories are still an ineffective minority (both of which are likely), what will we need PR for?
The rhetoric has to be timeless. This is about a better system for the next century.
For similar reasons, I wouldn’t take up the Chartists and direct action- smacks too much of class politics. We need to get the Conservatives onside. All the debates around radicalism in the 1760s revolved around creating a parliamentary system representative of and answerable to ‘the People’ (handily never defined). Perhaps its time to revive John Wilkes and Major Cartwright. Pitt the Younger was a reformer early in his career, too, so there’s one role model for the tories.
But I have a horrible feeling that any pro-PR campaign will end up like the pro-Euro campaign, staffed by true-believers for true-believers.
Splitting into factions is inevitable, as everyone has their own preferred systems (viz. the anti-European campaign, with UKIP splitting, splitting, then splitting again). So for the time being, any movement for reform has to avoid advocating any specific scenario.
Even the phrase “proportional representation” should, I reckon, be avoided – it summons up too many images of the loss of local representatives, strict proportionality by popular vote, a succession of chaotic and impotent coalition governments and the like, none of which are necessary outcomes of PR, but which are linked with it in the popular imagination.
The call is not for proportionality. The call is for fairness.