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Boris Johnson debates Alan Johnson to put the case against Proportional Representation

Boris a PX debate Last night Policy Exchange hosted a debate to discuss the merits of replacing the First Past The Post electoral system with Proportional Representation. Billed as Johnson v Johnson, the case for PR was put by Home Secretary Alan Johnson, supported by Vernon Bogdanor, with Boris Johnson and Lord Norton of Louth backing First Past The Post.

Alan Johnson admitted that he was missing Gordon Brown's appearance before the PLP in order to keep the engagement and during his speech appeared to suggest that Labour cannot win the general election when he said that we "may well get" a coalition government at the impending general election. He went to say that he had no problem with coalition governments and lamented the fact that he had thus far failed to persuade his party to hold a referendum on electoral reform, expressing his personal preference for the AV PLus system recommended by the Jenkins Commission.

To do Boris's reply justice, I merely offer you the full transcript of his speech...

Ladies and gents, I want to congratulate Policy Exchange and I want to begin by extending my sympathies to my cousin Alan for the heroic way in which he is enduring his ordeal.

Everybody or virtually everybody in Westminster knows that the best thing for the Labour party and the country would be the speedy removal of Gordon Brown. Everybody knows that my cousin Alan is far and away the best man to fill his shoes and across Britain there are men and women yearning for the cabinet to summon up the gumption and do their duty by party and by country to go into No 10, where Gordon waits, muttering with his head in his hands, like Marlon Brando at the end of Apocalypse Now and terminate his command.

What do we get instead? Nothing but muttering and moaning and the ludicrous rubber dagger plots of Hoon and Hewitt and a cabinet reduced to a hopeless coalition of the untrustworthy and the dithering. Not since the waters retired from the face of the earth has this country seen such a display of protoplasmic invertebracy and as the dying days of Labour drag on you may find it hard to believe that any system could produce a government more feeble, more indecisive more racked by internal feuding and division. And yet it could, my friends, if we were to follow cousin Alan and introduce PR.

The tragedy of cousin Alan is that his cabinet friends are too pathetic to remove a PM. The tragedy of PR is that we would take that power away from the electorate themselves. It is not just that the cabinet would be frustrated by their inability to get rid of Gordon, the people would be frustrated at the election itself and if there is one fact I want you to absorb tonight, it is that in the 50 years since the war there were 103 elections in Germany, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden - all countries that favour PR and its endless stream of buggins-turn coalitions. And how often, in those 103 elections, did voters actually succeed in producing a change of government? Six times!

No matter how you try it, AV, STV, STD: PR is a fraud upon the electorate because it will always tend to erode the sovereign right of the people to kick the rascals out. And I am not tonight going to argue that First Past The Post is perfect or proportional because no system is. And I know that there are some MPs who deeply resent the constituency system and the contact that it obliges them to have with the electorate - though I myself used to love my surgery and I will always treasure the memory of the woman who had slept with two identical twins and, since the DNA test was obviously inconclusive, she wondered if I could somehow work out which was the father of her baby.

This is the stuff of politics, ladies and gents, and that is why I want to preserve our system even though as Alan continually pointed out it is currently weighted against the Conservatives. And he mocks us for sticking to these principles and for putting the public interest before party interest. Well I can tell you in 2010 I think the public would rather see us stick up for the interests of the electorate than for the interests of politicians.

Of course it is true that in the last 50 years Tory constituencies have expanded and Labour seats have shrunk - as the voters very sensibly flee seats held by Labour MPs. But the answer is to redraw the boundaries in the time-honoured way, not to impose some new system with so many perils and flaws.

What have we all been through in the expenses scandal of 2009? What was the lesson we draw from the public outrage when they discovered the kind of thing that had been secretly bought with the additional costs allowance? What did they hate above all? It was the secrecy. It was the sense that the MPs were trying to get away with it. It was the hugger-mugger closed door deals that kept the public out but benefited the MPs themselves.

And that is exactly the kind of chicanery and secrecy that we associate with PR, where it takes months to form a government on the basis of deals and understandings that are never properly explained and alienate people from politics. 

PR entrenches the power of the party machines and any kind of list system not only increases the ability of the party cadres to exclude anyone with any independence of spirit; it not only breaks the link with the constituency; it also creates two classes of MP with two types of democratic mandate and what kind of Parliament would they belong to? One in which we have parties of extremists and fascists for the first time in our history. If you want to know why the BNP were invited to Buckingham Palace, you can put it down to PR - the system that elected Hitler.

It would force the major parties to spend ages trying to find out what the Lib dem policy is so that they can pander to it, when everybody knows the Lib Dem policy on cake is pro-having it and pro-eating it. And in the course of these delectable disputations, the government would be prevented from taking the radical decisions that the economy demands, the country needs and the people expect.

And above all in this by no means exhaustive list of the fatal defects of PR, it is not proportionate. Time after time it fails the test of proportionality as tiny parties are allowed to hold the balance of power: the FDP in Germany, the religious parties in Israel. European politics is littered with examples of parties that have lost votes in the election but miraculously been translated from opposition to government as they are suddenly deemed a suitably weakened and malleable coalition partner.

In fact the only question worth asking about PR is why we are having this debate now? And the answer is that Labour senses they are about to lose and as their fingers scrabble desperately on the lip of the oubliette of history, they see a way of prolonging their miserable stay of office.

I say we should reject that option tonight, ladies and gents. Hewitt blew it; Hoon's a buffoon; they had their opportunity to instal a Johnson and they fluffed it. Let us kick out this ludicrous motion as prelude to the ecstatic release that will come when we are finally allowed to kick out this Government.

Jonathan Isaby


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