Liberal Democrats opose the current voting system because it delivers results which are often quite different from what people are voting for. Even on less than 40% of the vote, governments can be formed which control all of the levers of power. Sometimes, a majority can be formed by a party that actually comes second in the popular vote- as happened in February 1974, when Harold Wilson was able to form a government for Labour despite gaining over 200,000 fewer votes than the Conservatives.
Over the 35 years since then, the power of the executive over the House of Commons has grown dramatically, and the power of local government diminished drastically. Thus the space for effective opposition has been reduced considerably, and the power of the Prime Minister has grown supreme. No longer "Primus inter pares", the patronage and power of the "First Lord of the Treasury" can no longer be challenged even by his supposed peers, the Cabinet Ministers. The spectacle of the latest reshuffle demonstrates just how small a clique is now able to control government- even against the general wishes of Government MPs, never mind the House of Commons as a whole.
That our constitution is now broken has clearly penetrated the minds of even die-hard constitutional conservatives. The Conservative Party has put forward some modest proposals for reform. However many of these, especially "Open Primaries", are mere gimmicks. At best they leave parties open to the kind of Militant tendency entry-ism that nearly destroyed Labour in the 1980s. In any event, the fact is that David Cameron is prepared to deselect some of his own MPs over expenses, despite local support. This, I think, demonstrates that, once selected, any Conservative candidate must demonstrate total loyalty regardless of pluralism, still less constructive opposition.
In the electoral wasteland that now confronts Gordon Brown, the temptation to change the rules for party advantage is clear. After dispatching its potential leadership rivals with Nixonian ruthlessness, the Brown-Mandelson axis is toying with using constitutional changes, and especially electoral reform, as a weapon in order to secure their power.
It is a dangerous as well as a cynical tactic. Naturally Labour will chose a system that is best for Labour and not best for the country. The bombast with which it is creating a "National Council for Democratic Renewal" does not disguise the fact that it is a partisan front organisation. Any genuine attempt to change the constitution of this country must seek to find a consensus across the parties: Brown has no such consensus, and he- as a Prime Minister yet to face an election- has no legitimate mandate for change without it.
The proposals that are emerging from the Brownian focus groups are at best patchy. Most fair minded observers would accept that the House of Lords is something of an anomaly. However other changes, especially the proposed changes to the electoral system, are a matter of great controversy.
The Liberal Democrats have made it quite clear that we favour a single transferable vote in multi member constituencies (STV). This is the electoral system that gives the voters the most choice. They can vote in a way that allows them to choose between candidates of the same party, rather than a simple yes/no to that party, irrespective of the candidate that is the choice under the current system. Likewise STV allows the voters to chose the candidate irrespective of party, while still registering support overall for a given party or even to oppose party members altogether if they so wish. Thus it is quite possible for independents to be elected to Parliament- something that is next to impossible in any kind of list system.
The Alternative Vote (AV) system that is currently mooted is a change, and perhaps a minor improvement on the current system, but it is not a proportional system and can create precisely the same problems as the current system. Even the more proportional AV+, although a better system, is still not as open as STV. AV+, of course, is what was recommended to Tony Blair by the Jenkins Commission- and totally ignored by New Labour until now. However the impact of the expenses crisis shows that there is a general view that the party cliques are too narrow- and yet under AV+ independents find it still harder to be elected.
Labour had the opportunity twelve years ago, when they were a newly minted and popular government, to offer the British people a change to the constitution. They chose not to deliver. Now, as all their other- especially economic- policies have turned to ashes, they turn back to the unfinished constitutional project.
It is too late for Labour.
Of course the Liberal Democrats- like Conservatives and other parties- want to see the completion of the reform of the House of Lords. However if Labour choose to ram through a change to the electoral system- even to AV+- we should oppose it. If a change is going to come, then let that be to the best electoral system, and a changed ratified by an all party constitutional commission and approved, if deemed necessary, by referendum.
David Cameron has indicated that he opposes a change to the voting system- I suspect that he may come to change his mind: after all many Labour politicians who used to oppose electoral reform now support it. Even if he does not, the point is that such significant changes to the constitution must not, indeed can not, take place on the basis of sectional party advantage- and that is what the Brown-Mandelson axis is trying to do.
Despite the temptation of our own sectional party interest probably being boosted by adopting AV+, the Liberal Democrats must resist that temptation. A half baked reform is worse than no reform at all. We must take our case to the wider country- which is only now beginning to see how "safe seats" and embedded party interest has corrupted MPs and destroyed the power of the House of Commons to the benefit of the office of Prime Minister.
If we are to be true to our principles and our country we must tell Gordon Brown that he has no mandate for reform, and that the only way that he can get one is to go to the country. During that election the Liberal Democrats can put forward their more thought-out and integrated programme for reform against the gimmickry of the Conservatives and the self interest of Labour.
We should not be afraid of a contest upon the ground that Liberals and Liberal Democrats have made their own for decades.