Monday, May 25, 2009

Memo to Gordon: How to reform parliament and save the Labour Party

What a mess. Parliament's reputation in tatters, British democracy under siege from extremist marginal parties and public resentment of the political class, the Labour party heading towards its worst ever electoral defeat.

What is to be done?

Well, there is one thing which can be done. It would revive British democracy and the Labour party in one go, as well as preventing the Conservatives from winning the next election. It would also be cheap and popular in the short run, and support social democracy in the long run. Most democracies have done it already, and Britain has too, but not for the derided Westminster parliament.

Let's end the suspense: I'm talking about Electoral Reform. To be precise, proportional representation (PR) - an electoral system which would allocate seats in parliament roughly proportionally to the votes each party wins.

This idea has come to me for two different reasons. The cynical reason is that Labour is almost certain to win less votes than the Conservatives in the next election, but still has a majority in parliament. This means that it could easily change the electoral system (the Liberal Democrats would certainly support it, since they would be the biggest beneficiaries), and the adoption of proportional representation would make it almost certain that the Conservatives would not have a majority after the next election.

Although this could appear as an opportunistic move, the kind of cynical manipulation which turns people off conventional politics, it has in its favour the fact that the distortions in the current system are surely part of the reason why politicians are so unpopular. After all, the current Labour government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, but received the votes of little more than a fifth of the British electorate (34% of the vote on a 60% turnout). So, 80% of voters did not support Labour in the last election - is there any wonder the government is unpopular? Whilst partisan gain is the obvious motivation for such a move, the crisis over MPs' expenses gives the government a public interest justification for it which would not be available in normal circumstances.

PR would mean that the government of the day - inevitably a coalition government - at least has some degree of support from half of the citizens who turn out to vote, and by giving voters the option of supporting the party they prefer, rather than the one of the two likely winners in their constituency, it may even encourage higher turnout.

The second reason for PR is more political: PR tends to promote a fairer distribution of income and wealth. Research by Torben Iversen of Harvard and David Soskice of Oxford shows that countries with PR tend to have more redistributive policies, promoting greater equality. They explain this pattern through a model of the median earner's behaviour, in which under PR she can choose a party that will redistribute from the rich to everyone else, whereas under First Past the Post she is more likely to vote for a party that will redistribute less, because she fears being 'soaked' by the poor. (LSE students can link to the article here).

So what has Gordon got to lose? He will lose the next election under current arrangements, and a majority Conservative government is likely to reverse many of the social democratic politics adopted by New Labour, from tax credits and Sure Start to higher spending on public healthcare and education. Under PR, Cameron will probably have to make a deal with the Liberal Democrats, which will moderate these policies (I hope). The downside is that Labour will never again enjoy the untrammeled power of the last decade and a bit, but neither will they ever suffer again the misery of 18 years of powerless opposition to Thatcher and Major.

What about the extremist parties? Put a threshold of 5% across the whole national territory, and use of form of PR (mixed member systems as in Scotland and Wales) to allow small parties with concentrated support to get elected. Germany has this system and has no extremist parties in parliament.

In the long run, Britain should be a fairer place under PR, and people might even start liking politics again (a long shot I admit). The time to do this is now, because if the Conservatives win the next election under First Past the Post, it's all over for a decade or two.