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Election 2010: Party promises | Constitutional reform – the Electoral Reform Society’s verdict

Predictable proposals - but a hung parliament might see some progress

By Ken Ritchie

With none of the parties pulling any new constitutional rabbits out of their hats, for reformers the manifestos are predictable and boring.

Positions on the big question – how we elect our MPs – have been well-rehearsed over the past few months. Labour promises a referendum on the Alternative Vote, but it’s a weaker offer than the 1997 commitment – AV is not proportional.

The Conservatives want politics to “reflect the people it is meant to represent”, but are unwilling to change the voting system to allow this to happen. They’re supporting first-past-the-post “because it gives voters the chance to kick out a government they are fed up with”. A voting system that leads to better governments in the first place is not considered an option.

The Conservative manifesto includes their commitment to reduce the number of MPs to 400 – something that may have an anti-politics appeal, but will not necessarily do much for democracy. What’s surprising is that the Liberal Democrats also want 150 fewer MPs.

The Tory plans also repeat the myth that equalising the size of constituencies is the answer to unfairness. What’s worrying is not the proposal, but that a party that hasn’t managed to analyse a little problem like this might soon be taking decisions on our economy.

The Liberal Democrats (along with the SNP and Plaid Cymru) want STV, making it the only one of the three main parties to call for major voting reform. This time they have given reform more prominence.

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So what will happen? An outright Conservative win would knock electoral reform off the agenda. In a hung parliament, however, Labour would need Lib Dem support to keep their hands on the tiller – and real voting reform may be their price. The Lib Dems’ proposal for a “citizens’ convention” on the constitution might offer Labour, which would find a sudden embrace of STV difficult, a way forward.

Whatever happens, the next parliament might at least see progress on the Lords. The Lib Dems want a fully-elected second chamber. Labour plan to hold a referendum on their plans for staggered elections to the Lords on the same day as one on the Commons voting system. Both recognise the need for a proportional voting system for a second chamber.

The Conservatives want a “mainly elected chamber”, but make no promises about removing hereditary seats or using a fair voting system. If a Conservative government offered a second chamber elected by first-past-the-post, we might be better off with the more proportional, even if unaccountable, Lords we have at present.

Ken Ritchie is Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society

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