Support 100 years of independent journalism.

29 September 2009

Brown rules out PR referendum

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

By Mehdi Hasan

I am sitting here in the conference hall in Brighton, in the cramped bleachers, depressed and dejected.

As an ardent electoral reformer, and as someone who strongly believes that both the Labour Party and the wider British public would benefit from a voting system based on proportional representation, in which every vote counts and safe seats disappear, I would describe it as an understatement to say that I am hugely disappointed by the Prime Minister’s speech.

Here is what he said on what, for me, is the key issue of electoral reform:

There is now a stronger case than ever that MPs should be elected with the support of more than half their voters — as they would under the alternative voting system. And so I can announce today that in Labour’s next manifesto there will be a commitment for a referendum to be held early in the next parliament. It will be for the people to decide whether they want to move to the alternative vote.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

There are four important points worth considering here.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

First, the alternative vote (or AV) — unlike the “AV-plus” voting method suggested by the Jenkins commission report of 1998 and then shelved by Tony Blair — is not a proportional system. It gives MPs majority support in their individual constituencies, but fails to translate a party’s national vote share into a fair proportion of seats in parliament. On occasion, AV can be more disproportionate than the current first-past-the-post system.

Second, it makes no sense to pretend that the UK cannot handle, or is not suited to, a fully proportional system — having agreed that Scotland and Wales are.

Third, to promise a referendum in the next parliament in the form of a manifesto commitment simply will not wash. Labour promised a referendum on voting reform in its 1997 manifesto, more than 12 years ago.

Fourth, given the state of the polls, and the Tory lead, it is pointless, if not self-defeating, to plan for a referendum on electoral reform in the next parliament, when Labour, in all likelihood, will be out of power, rather than in this parliament, when Labour still wields absolute legislative power and can actually make it happen. We need a democratising, empowering and potentially game-changing referendum before — or on the same day as — the next general election, and not after.

But, alas, the Prime Minister seems to disagree.

I will be chairing the Vote for a Change rally in Brighton tonight, where the Communities Secretary and PR supporter, John Denham MP, will be speaking. I’ll be asking him if he is as disappointed as I am in the Brown announcement on electoral reform this afternoon. Do come along if you can — it’s at the Royal Albion hotel at 8pm.