On Saturday rolling 24 hour news gave prominent and near constant coverage to a group of around 1000 people for reform of the voting system. This is an issue traditionally seen as being for geeks and democratic nerds. It isn’t something that is usually drags people to protest in the streets on a sunny Saturday. James Landale of the BBC summed it up nicely when he (reportedly) said, “I’ve never seen demonstrators waving placards with pie-charts on them before.”
Yet, this election has been dominated by talk of electoral reform like none other, with the proposals from all parties for changes to the way we vote being given greater prominence. The new coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats contains a number of significant reforms including a referendum on the reform of our voting system to the Alternative Vote. This in itself is a significant compromise for both the Conservatives, who prefer the current first past the post system, and the Liberal Democrats, who have campaigned for years for a proportional system.
The two parties have also agreed that the same referendum will offer voters the option of reducing the number of constituencies, a Conservative manifesto commitment. In addition, the government will explore possibilities for wholly or partially electing the House of Lords using proportional representation.
As I have already suggested above, these reforms do not have universal support across the political parties. Indeed, the agreement explicitly states that although the new government will whip their respective parties in Parliament into supporting a referendum bill, they will be free to campaign on either side of the referendum once it happens. Different reforms are seen to favour different parties: reduced constituency size will probably favour the Conservatives, AV Labour and Liberal Democrats, proportional representation the Liberal Democrats and smaller parties. Holding a referendum on reforms that have come solely from the Government risks accusations of gerrymandering which alienate the public. Public alienation from the reform process would leave us with the significant possibility that the public will support none of the options presented in any referendum and the democratic reform agenda will stall for at least another generation.
Setting up some form of committee of the great and good would be one way of insulating the reform proposals from these charges. However, the risk is that the public fails to distinguish the establishment from the government. If this happens then the resulting suspicion could well scupper any hopes of a referendum successfully building and garnering support for electoral reforms.
There is another way; involving citizens directly in defining the terms under which the reforms should happen. Inviting a representative (randomly selected) group of citizens to a citizens’ assembly to learn about the different systems and to deliberate on their implications would be one way of giving citizens voice in these critical reforms. It has been done before in British Colombia and Ontario, Canada. It isn’t without its pitfalls, but without finding some way of bringing citizens directly into the reform process any changes to our electoral system risk being seen as an attempt by one or more parties to hold onto power at the expense of others.
After all we don’t trust politicians to make decisions in other areas where they could be accused of having a conflict of interest. Wage increases for MPs are proposed by the Review Body on Senior Salaries, not by politicians. Citizens will have to live with whatever voting system we will end up using; surely they should decide what the options on the table are and not the politicians who have an obvious vested interest in the outcome.