In January of this year, two Green MSPs managed to prevent the passing of a new budget in the Scottish Parliament. They are two out of 129 MSPs in Parliament, elected by Proportional Representation. Proponents of the system argue it is by far the fairest way to reflect the voting intentions of the people as a whole. Indeed, this argument has some merit: by reflecting the proportion of the votes cast, the legislative assembly is more truly the ‘representation’ of the people. It is, by extension, more democratic, more legitimate and has the potential to produce more balanced legislation. That is until it actually has to do anything.
Back to January in Holyrood. The SNP has bumbled through as a minority Government since it was elected in 2007, struggling to operate effectively having failed to get an overall majority from the Scottish population. In January, however, it was humbled by those two, suddenly extremely powerful, Green MSPs. The SNP even offered an £11 million sop to the Greens, which they turned down. The entire budget was thrown out the window. Proportional Representation provides a perfectly colour-coded debating chamber: yellow, orange, red and blue all neatly distributed. For all that, during the vote on the budget, the chamber might as well have been painted completely green, such was the influence that that party wielded.
It is no wonder then, given the experience of the Scottish Parliament, that Scottish members of the Westminster Parliament are some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Continuation of First Past the Post - indeed the member for Central Ayrshire is the co-Chairman of the Group. They have seen the mayhem in Scotland and are best placed to know an unworkable mess when they see one. There are many different types of PR, but the one proposed by Alan Johnson recently, much to the annoyance of the Justice Secretary, is known as ‘Alternative Vote plus’. In this system voters have two ballot papers, one for their constituency representative and another for their favoured party. It is seen as a good compromise between keeping the link between constituency MPs and providing a more accurate representation of the will of the people.
Under such a system MPs more often than not, would have to appeal both to their base and to the middle ground in order to win an election. MPs are representatives of the whole constituency, but they are allowed to have, indeed it is imperative that they should have, their own opinions - some of them controversial. Under the AV-Plus form of PR, MPs would not only have to appeal to some in the middle ground, but they'd also have to appeal specifically to those who might vote for minority parties, hoping not to lose the support of their base. MPs would have to be the least-objected-to candidate, neutering their true opinions and stifling debate. They would have to sit on the fence for fear of offending any of the electorate.
And whichever form of PR the Government might use, there is the very real problem of anonymity. To take a contemporary example, constituents can directly hold MPs to account on their expenses; they cannot do so for MEPs, if only because they have absolutely no idea who they are. I offer £100 to constituents at surgeries to name our MEPs and I have so far not lost a penny. MEPs are party appointees who have no relationship with their constituents, precisely because they are elected on a proportional basis.
To remain topical, there is the danger posed by fringe parties. Because of the system introduced in London, the BNP now has a member on the Greater London Assembly. In a time of recession, it is possibly the worst time to reintroduce a system that saw the rise of the far right across Europe, during the Great Depression.
In the next few weeks one weakness of PR becomes more obvious: it removes the immediate and not-to-be-underestimated power of the electorate to remove the incumbent. Coalitions are a natural result of such a system. If a Government ‘loses’ an election, it would still retain a significant proportion of the vote, and could easily form part of the ensuing Government. If PR were introduced before the next election, for example, Gordon Brown would stand an even chance of remaining Prime Minister.
The main problem with PR, however, is that it is a distraction for bigger issues of the day: a deep recession and a crisis of confidence in the political class. PR does nothing to affect either of these issues. It does nothing to change the fact the IMF forecast that the UK will have the biggest budget deficit of the G20 countries; it does nothing to change the fact that Britain is set to have the longest recession of major economies; it does nothing to fix the faltering constitution of the UK. It is a flimsy mask for the Government’s ineptitude and infighting.
On that basis, it would be an historical tragedy if such an enormous change were made by a Government shorn of all authority, lacking a democratic mandate. Had PR been introduced before the 2005 election, for example, the Labour Party would barely have been the biggest single party on the ballot, let alone have an overall majority. One does not have to be too cynical to figure out why there has been a sudden change of heart.
Only a new Parliament would have a mandate to change the rules, and introduce the constitutional and electoral changes outlined by David Cameron. He is right to consider fixed term Parliaments; it is wrong that Prime Ministers wield such an awesome power as the timing of elections. Would this allow lame duck Governments to linger on past their natural life? I do not think so. Gordon Brown is managing that all by himself, without hiding behind a fixed term. What is wrong is that, had he called the election in 2007, he might well have won it, giving us another five years of discredited Labour rule. And what a nonsense that would have been. And even that scenario would be preferable to a limping, cobbled together coalition formed on the back of PR.
To this mortally wounded Prime Minister I have one final thing to say. If he honestly believes he can push this through in one final, desperate, roll of the dice, he has another think coming. Scottish Labour MPs will not vote for him. Conservative MPs will not vote for him. His own Cabinet is disintegrating around him. If he was serious about reform you would have addressed the two big issues of the day: make the House of Lords an elected chamber and check on the Commons, and remove the democratic deficit that sees the Welsh overrepresented and the Scottish able to decide issues in England that do not affect them. We have seen your sleight of hand, Mr Brown, and you are simply not strong enough to get away with it.