With the British media all dewy-eyed over yesterday’s Rose Garden love fest, some of the more interesting details in the Conservative/LibDem coalition agreement have slipped by largely unnoticed, particularly those relating to electoral and political reform (summarized in an earlier posting on this site) – one or two of which are worth considering here.
The one reform that has received attention, of course, is the proposal to call a referendum on electoral reform with the voters been offered a choice between the existing single member plurality (or ‘first past the post’) system and the alternative vote (AV) – the system used for electing the Irish president and also used in Australia for electing their parliament. Whether this referendum will pass is a moot point: there are many in the ranks (and, indeed, leadership groups) of the Conservatives and Labour who are opposed to any form of electoral reform. For that matter, there are many supporters of electoral reform who will be upset about the missed opportunity that this represents. As discussed in previous postings, AV is not a proportional system, so it will do very little to address the inherent inequities of British electoral politics that results in smaller parties struggling to win seats in the British parliament. What AV would do (if passed) is change the strategic dynamic in British election campaigns, encouraging parties to work closer together to attract vote transfers from other parties, thus helping to foster a spirit of cooperation and accommodation in British politics.
Electoral reform was one of the unfinished matters of the supposed Blairite ‘revolution’; another unfinished matter was replacing the outmoded hereditary principle that determines membership of Britain’s upper house of parliament – the House of Lords. The Conservative/LibDem coalition have committed themselves to replacing the House of Lords with a new directly elected chamber, to be elected using a proportional representation electoral system (probably regional list – the system Britain currently uses to elect MEPs). They’ve yet to determine whether this will be a fully or partially elected chamber (clearly we can only hope it is the former), but in any event this reform has the potential of a profound impact on British national politics in at least two respects: (1) the PR system will ensure that smaller parties win seats in the new upper chamber and thus have a representative voice in British politics; (2) the directly elected members can claim greater legitimacy by virtue of the fact of being elected, thus raising the prospect of the upper chamber muscling in a greater role for itself in British representative politics and threatening the ascendancy of the House of Commons.
There are other political reform proposals that are obvious, but no less significant for that, such as better regulation of party finance, and of lobbyists. In the mix are two proposals that might be worth considering for our political system too. First, the Conservative/LibDem coalition has committed itself to introducing early legislation for a fixed-term parliament, ending the powerful weapon in the armory of the British prime minister who decides on when the election should be called. The coalition government needs this change to reinforce its expressed desire to serve out a full-term. Their proposal will be that an early election can only be called by a super-majority of 55% of MPs. As we saw over the past long number of months in British politics, the uncertainty over when the election is to be called can be corrosive, adding to doubts over future policy directions. There are pros and cons to fixed-term parliaments, of course – an obvious one being that it would make it even more difficult to force an election to unseat a deeply unpopular government (ahem!); but that aside, there are merits to this that are worth considering.
The other interesting reform proposal that might also be worth considering here is ‘voter recall’: the right for voters in a constituency to petition to force a by-election to try and unseat an MP who is ‘found to have engaged in serious wrong doing’. Voter recall is used in a number of states in the USA; the most colourful recent example being the unseating of ultra-grey Gray Davis as governor of California and his replacement by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Given recent cases of political corruption in Ireland, perhaps this is an electoral device we might like here too?