Today I got an email from Vote For A Change picking up on Gordon Brown’s Conference speech commitment to a referendum on electoral reform.

Gordon Brown

Vote For A Change welcomed the announcement but wanted action to be taken in this Parliament – not least because there’s no guarantee that Labour will have the power to fulfil their promise come next June. Their open letter to Gordon Brown is available here and I think it’s worth signing – but also worth pausing to look a bit deeper into the background of Brown’s announcement.

The focal point is the way that Brown relates his proposals on democratic reform to the expenses scandal. Here’s the relevant extract from the Prime Minister’s conference speech.

Never again should it be said of any Member of Parliament that they are in it for what they can get; all of us should be in Parliament for what we can give.

And so where there is proven financial corruption by an MP and in cases where wrong-doing has been demonstrated but Parliament fails to act we will give constituents the right to recall their Member of Parliament.

And if we want a politics that is more open, more plural, more local, more democratic, then we will need to make big changes because the only way to ensure politics serves the people’s values is to make all those who wield political power genuinely accountable to the people.

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 be under the Alternative Voting system.

(full speech here)

In four sentences, via the interesting proposals on allowing constituents to ‘recall’ their MPs, Brown moves from the expenses scandal to the need for electoral reform. Expenses brought ‘politics’ into disrepute by displaying its lack of accountability; electoral reform will increase that accountability. Sounds logical enough – but the two issues are completely unrelated. Did the size of an MP’s majority, or the healthiness of democratic activity in their constituency, have any bearing on whether or not they chose to cash in?

Campaigning groups have not tended to expose this fallacy, but have reinforced it. The first sentence under ‘What we’re doing’ on the Vote For A Change website states: ‘Politicians have let us down. They’ve abused their power for too long – it’s time for a change. ‘ In both the party political and the campaigning spheres, momentum in public relations has gone before logic. Electoral reform shouldn’t be a sop to the idea of democracy, but a considered move towards a more democratic reality.

I’m completely in favour of the proposed referendum, and of it taking place as early as possible. So why split hairs? Because I realise that just because this broad-brush, national-scale, extremely rapid and event-driven mode of action might have gone the way I wanted this time, mostly it doesn’t. A cynic might see our system’s lack of democracy reflected in the culmination of this breakneck process: a pronouncement made by a man who might be on his way out of a job, to cushion the fall from government of his party and containing a promise he will never have the power to keep, is scrutinised as if it actually means something, because there is little else that the system encourages people to do. Perhaps this is related to the idea that we are becoming a monitory democracy. This blog post makes me just as guilty as anyone in failing to stand up to this trend. And I don’t see the Alternative Vote system, brilliant as it would be, addressing this underlying democratic deficit.

Imagine being able to channel ideas on, say, electoral reform through local open meetings – not talking shops with free wine provided, or simple opportunities to ask questions of elected representatives, but forums which could discuss the pros and cons rationally and – crucially – make recommendations which would have force at some tangible and important level. That’s my ideal, in my current way of thinking, and I don’t know how to make it work, but I think it’s something worth spending some time working out.

Maybe, if we’re very good, we could get that free wine in after all to aid the thinking process.

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