Taxation without representation: Lib Dems have to go for the fourth Great Reform Act

Clegg’s “significant programme of empowerment” is a velvet glove for proper electoral reform.

"It is impossible that the whisper of a faction should prevail against the voice of a nation." So wrote John, Earl Russell, in a letter about the rejection of the Reform Bill in 1831. The allocation of parliamentary seats that has its distant origins in the administrative shires of medieval England is still, arguably, a thorn in the side of modern democracy.

Locked up in the Representation of the People Acts is the whole machinery of election, constituencies and "first-past-the-post" that the Lib Dems rightly wish to overhaul. The only likelihood is that, even with Labour support, the referendum on AV will get fudged by the Conservatives, or misworded in the demonic convolutions favoured by pollsters such as YouGov.

The Lib Dems need to take up their own dark arts, and quickly. Of all options available, "too many MPs" is the best long-term opportunity for electoral reform. It has, probably to the intense annoyance of the Conservatives, the advantage of working in complement with devolution of power to local level.

There are seasoned practitioners. India, with a population of 1.1 billion, returns just 545 members to the Lok Sabha (lower house) and 250 members to the Rajya Sabha (upper house) and manages the bulk of government administration through state and provincial assemblies.

In reality, parliamentary reform shows every sign of being as difficult this time round as it first was in the early 1820s, when snail-like progress was made against Tory headwinds in both the reform of constituency and franchise, or entitlement to vote.

John Russell had first championed a redistribution of seats and voting franchise in 1822. Just 2 per cent, or approximately half a million males of the populace, were able to vote. By 1830 the reform movement had the backing of Lord Grey and the Whig ministry.

The Tories were fiercely opposed because more than 200 of their seats were in rotten or "pocket" ("in your pocket") boroughs. It was something that neither the great nor the good sought to rise above. William Wilberforce in 1780 bought his Hull seat for £9,000. Most famously, Old Sarum had just 13 voters and Dulwich had 32. The Duke of Norfolk owned 11 rotten boroughs; the Earl of Lonsdale, nine.

Nor was the Reform Act of 1832 the miracle it might have been heralded to be, because although it redistributed seats on a slightly more equitable basis, it increased the electorate to just over 800,000: a rise of 3 per cent.

The 1867 Reform Act increased the share of urban centres and extended the franchise to all male ratepayers in the boroughs. The electorate reached 2.5 million or 8 per cent of the population. The third Reform Act (1884) extended the franchise to 16 per cent of the population, about 5.6 million.

There was further redistribution of parliamentary seats in 1885, and a tinkering that continued from universal suffrage in 1928, through the establishment of the Boundary Commission in 1948, up to the present day.

The Liberals, renamed from the aristocratic Whigs in the 1840s, in the 19th century increasingly became the party of progressive industrialists, free traders, freethinkers and an emergent middle class. Much of what they stood for would today be seen as pleasantly Fabian ideals with a touch of realpolitik, particularly in foreign affairs.

They pushed for universal elementary education, old-age pensions, national insurance (income tax had been brought in by Pitt the Younger to fund the Napoleonic wars), economic liberalisation and, famously and controversially under Gladstone, for Irish Home Rule. The sufferings of ordinary people during the First and Second World Wars and proper enfranchisement after centuries of disenfranchisement swayed the majority share of their vote towards the newly formed Labour Party.

It's imperative that the Lib Dems, presented with a heroic opportunity to represent the social welfare of the people in a flawed Conservative coalition, snatch it back.

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Will Jeremy Corbyn stand down if Labour loses the general election?

Defeat at the polls might not be the end of Corbyn’s leadership.

The latest polls suggest that Labour is headed for heavy defeat in the June general election. Usually a general election loss would be the trigger for a leader to quit: Michael Foot, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband all stood down after their first defeat, although Neil Kinnock saw out two losses before resigning in 1992.

It’s possible, if unlikely, that Corbyn could become prime minister. If that prospect doesn’t materialise, however, the question is: will Corbyn follow the majority of his predecessors and resign, or will he hang on in office?

Will Corbyn stand down? The rules

There is no formal process for the parliamentary Labour party to oust its leader, as it discovered in the 2016 leadership challenge. Even after a majority of his MPs had voted no confidence in him, Corbyn stayed on, ultimately winning his second leadership contest after it was decided that the current leader should be automatically included on the ballot.

This year’s conference will vote on to reform the leadership selection process that would make it easier for a left-wing candidate to get on the ballot (nicknamed the “McDonnell amendment” by centrists): Corbyn could be waiting for this motion to pass before he resigns.

Will Corbyn stand down? The membership

Corbyn’s support in the membership is still strong. Without an equally compelling candidate to put before the party, Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP are unlikely to initiate another leadership battle they’re likely to lose.

That said, a general election loss could change that. Polling from March suggests that half of Labour members wanted Corbyn to stand down either immediately or before the general election.

Will Corbyn stand down? The rumours

Sources close to Corbyn have said that he might not stand down, even if he leads Labour to a crushing defeat this June. They mention Kinnock’s survival after the 1987 general election as a precedent (although at the 1987 election, Labour did gain seats).

Will Corbyn stand down? The verdict

Given his struggles to manage his own MPs and the example of other leaders, it would be remarkable if Corbyn did not stand down should Labour lose the general election. However, staying on after a vote of no-confidence in 2016 was also remarkable, and the mooted changes to the leadership election process give him a reason to hold on until September in order to secure a left-wing succession.

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