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28 May 2007

Vote early, vote often

The incoming premier is stealthily shifting his position on electoral reform

By Martin Bright

So what exactly did Gordon Brown mean? I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people ask themselves this question since the Chancellor announced his candidacy for the Labour leadership on 11 May. When Brown talks about making the National Health Service his “priority”, does that make it more important than education, which remains his “passion”? Or is a “priority” lower down the political food chain than a “passion”? Hard to tell.

Then there are his cryptic utterances on Iraq, which take Brown’s genius for opacity to new levels. We are apparently at “a different stage now” in the conflict, something that could have been said at any time since the 2003 invasion. As for constitutional reform, we are told to expect new legislation, but it’s anyone’s guess what this might amount to; we can only be sure that it will help “rebuild trust”. At the launch of Gordon Brown for Britain, the prime-minister-to-be even seemed to be suggesting that he could invite senior Liberal Democrats into the cabinet. Or was he?

The Delphic nature of the Chancellor’s pronouncements is beginning to flummox even those who speak fluent Gordon. There is, for instance, an intense discussion among Brown’s allies about exactly what he said when questioned at the Fabian Society’s hustings on the issue of electoral reform. Did he say, as most suggest, that he was “not closed” to the idea of some form of proportional voting system, or did he say that he was “not close” to coming round to the idea, as others insist they heard? Of course, both could be true, although it is pushing it to suggest that even Brown could have intended to say both at the same time.

The truth is that Brown is thinking very hard about constitutional reform. He has become convinced that the British public needs to be persuaded that conventional politics is worth engaging with again. To that end, he has pledged to introduce a draft constitutional reform bill this year. He has hinted, as ever obliquely, that he could countenance some form of written constitution.

In all this, electoral reform itself may not be his first priority (or passion). The Chancellor believes that the key to a new constitutional settlement must be a fundamental shift in the relationship between the legislative and executive arms of government. In simple terms, the power of the prime minister needs to be curbed. This amounts to a serious criticism of how Tony Blair ran his government, during which period the elected chamber at times became an irrelevant sideshow.

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After reforming the constitutional role of the office of prime minister, Brown will turn to Lords reform, which remains unresolved. In March the Chancellor voted for an 80 per cent elected chamber. But who would qualify for election, for how long, and under what method? What would constitute the other 20 per cent? And would the new prime minister override the will of the Commons, which voted overwhelmingly for a fully elected second chamber? We still don’t know the answers to all these questions and there is no evidence that Brown does, either.

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So what of the most important question on this issue? Is Brown considering proposals to move to a system of proportional representation? Those who have asked the Chancellor in recent weeks have had the typically enigmatic response: “There’s more than one form of PR.” As the mood in the Labour Party shifts, at least two of the candidates for the deputy leadership, Peter Hain and Alan Johnson, have indicated their support for some form of PR.

Straight vote

By a process of elimination, it should be possible to work out which method of voting Brown favours. He is known to be opposed to any system that severs the “constituency link”, so this rules out a straight system of proportional rep resentation where the number of MPs would directly match the proportion of votes. But he is also thought to be sceptical about hybrid list-based systems, such as the one used for electing the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. Under this so-called Additional Member System, a certain number of seats is decided by “first past the post” and the rest topped up from party lists to give a fairer representation of the popular vote in parliament. Brown’s hostility to this system dates not from this month’s disastrous Scottish results, but from the first time it was mooted within Labour more than a decade ago.

So that leaves us with the Alternative Vote system, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. Where no candidate within a constituency reaches 50 per cent of the vote, the person at the bottom of the pile is eliminated and his votes redistributed until one candidate has more than half the votes. This system has the advantage of retaining the constituency link. Some favour adding a party list, but Brown is unlikely to back such a proposal after the Scottish experience. Still, a pure AV system could find favour with him. Another clue to his intentions is that the Chancellor’s closest ally, Ed Balls, has long been sympathetic to the AV argument.

Brown’s sphinx-like approach to the leadership campaign appears to be paying dividends during the period of transition, which has conveniently coincided with Tory infighting over grammar schools. But the closer the handover comes, the more questions will be raised about the legitimacy of the new premier’s position. It is all very well Brown talking about curbing the power of the executive, but when, as prime minister, he has come to power without being elected as leader of his own party, the people of Britain will be right to ask questions about the glaring democratic deficit.

In these circumstances, a pledge of electoral reform would be the least Gordon Brown could do to restore trust in our political institutions.