25 September 2009

Will People Vote For A Change?

The 'Vote For A Change' campaign is writing to David Cameron asking him to support a referendum on electoral reform. Cameron supports the existing first-past-the-post system, however reformers (like me) argue that this system doesn't properly represent the will of the electorate. The graphic shows the result of the 2005 general election was distorted by first-past-the-post. Labour gained far more MPs than their vote should allow, and the Lib Dems and others gained far fewer. Cameron wants to keep the current system as it is highly likely that the Tories will get the same unfair benefit at the next election that Labour enjoyed last time.

However, what their letter calls for is a referendum. I question whether this is the best strategy to get what we want.

The most likely scenario that a referendum would come about in the foreseeable future is if Labour call for one to be held during the general election ballot. Senior Labour figures have been openly raising speculation about whether it will happen. They have every reason to be considering it. In the polls, Labour are lagging behind the Tories by 16+ points, suggesting they are heading for a crushing defeat at the next election.

But the reason they are considering it now is the very same reason why a referendum could go horribly wrong for those of us who want reform. Labour will be painted by the Tories as using their last breath of power to desperately fiddle with the electoral system just to give them more power. And their assessment would be correct. If Labour were serious about reform they'd have made good on their promise years ago. Given Labour's unpopularity, many people may vote 'no' as a vote against Labour. If the result of a referendum was 'no', it would be devastating for the cause, probably putting it back half a century or more.

I want electoral reform. There needs to be a referendum on it (the public must have their say on such a fundamental change). But if Labour call for it now, isn't there a real risk of the Tories using Labour's unpopularity to get their way?

The counter-argument is this: if not now, when? The Tories are opposed to reform, and will never call for a referendum. Assuming they get in, it may well be over a decade before the Tories are out out of governemnt, and it pains me to say it but it currently looks more likely to be Labour rather than Lib Dem who will take over. Recent history has shown can't trust Labour to hold the referendum while they are popular.

However this is all speculative. Five years is a gigantic time in politics: there could be a hung parliament; the Tories might only be popular for one term; a Lib-Lab pact may be formed to oust them in 2014/15. A referendum under these circumstances would be far more winnable.

So I have my concerns over a sudden referendum. What do you think?

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