Labour's PR spin and deception (no end in sight)

by Stephen Tall on January 24, 2008

Ah, those bright, heady, summer days, when a nation anticipated – just briefly – the prospect that Gordon Brown might breathe some new life into British politics, might even (whisper it gently) prove to be a radical reformer. It all seems so far away now.

There were even hints, you may recall, that the new Prime Minister was considering introducing the Alternative Vote, a bastardised form of proportional representation which would likely have stuffed the Tories, and outflanked the Lib Dems.

Well, submerged by today’s announcement of Peter Hain’s resignation, and the subsequent mini-reshuffle, was today’s announcement by ministers that they plan no changes to the current first-past-the-post voting system in UK general elections. To quote Michael Wills, the Justice Minister:

… the current voting system for UK general elections works well.

Mr Mills has based this judgment on an internal Ministry of Justice Review of Electoral Systems, published today. The press release which has accompanied the Review’s publication gives a clear steer that the Review has examined proportional voting systems, and found them lacking.

As you would expect from Labour, this is simple spin. As you would expect, this simple spin has been swallowed whole (and spewed back out again) by the even simpler mainstream media.

The Electoral Reform Society has taken the trouble actually to read the Review, and notes that it is:

… in the main, a fair and detailed treatment of the issues around electoral systems. It is not flawless, but it is a good civil service piece of work. … The truth about the review is that it demolishes some of the arguments most cherished by opponents of electoral reform … and it does refute some arguments commonly made by critics of PR.”

Specific points the Review makes – highlighted by the ERS – which you’re unlikely to read in the mainstream media include:

PR delivers just as stable and effective government as first-past-the-post:
“We do not find a difference between PR systems and FPTP in terms of delivering stable and effective government although, with a greater number of parties involved under PR, the political landscape can be more dynamic. In the experience of the UK, coalition governments can be just as stable as single-party governments.” (para 6.168)

Every vote matters under PR: “One of the main benefits of PR, and in particular STV, is that voters have a greater degree of choice in elections and a greater chance of their vote counting in terms of who gets elected.” (para 6.169)

PR is just as easily understood by voters as first-past-the-post: “We do not find, on balance, any evidence to suggest that voters find one voting system easier or more confusing than another voting system.” (para 6.170).

PR helps create a democracy more representative of the society it serves: “On the criteria of social representation, the newly introduced voting systems have improved the situation of women, although Labour’s positive action policies have also been an important contributory facto.” (para 6.172)

PR boosts electoral turnout by around 5% compared to first-past-the-post, according to systematic international comparisons:
“Five percent is probably a reasonable average differential worldwide in the 1990s.” (para 7.92, page 164).

(Hat-tip to the ERS for this filleting.)

But the evidence doesn’t matter to this Government. Its leading figures – Brown, Balls, Alexander, Miliband (Ed), Straw – are all obsessively tribal creatures, for whom the idea of a pluralist democracy is blasphemy.

Of course one could point out Labour’s 1997 manifesto promise:

We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system”.

One could even point out Tony Blair’s 1996 promise:

The party I lead will carry out in government the programme we provide in our Manifesto beforehand. Nothing more, nothing less, that is my word.”

But his word on this (and so much else besides) proved worthless. It is wishful thinking to imagine that Gordon Brown will prove any different to his predecessor.