The wrong question on Planet Denial
Published in: Daily Mail
As Gordon Brown voyages towards the farther shores of Planet Denial, responding to the corruption of Parliament by pledging bizarrely to clean up all public institutions such as the NHS and the BBC, his fellow MPs appear to be not far behind him.
With talk of unseating the Prime Minister growing ever louder, Health Secretary Alan Johnson (the man considered most likely to do the deed) has unveiled his own Big Idea for reforming Britain's stricken political system.
Is this plan a tough-minded scheme to keep corruption at bay? A way of making MPs more transparent and more accountable? A mechanism to reconnect them with public concerns instead of the incestuous and narcissistic frivolities of the Westminster circus?
No, it is none of these things. It is instead a brilliant way of making the political conspiracy against the public interest even worse.
For Mr Johnson's Big Idea is proportional representation. To be more precise, it is a form of PR-lite called Alternative Vote Plus.
This would mean that if one candidate didn't get more than half the total votes cast, second and third preference votes would then be totted up and the winner would be the one who came out on top.
In addition, it would mean voting on a separate ballot form not for a person but for a party, with the most successful party then dishing out seats to candidates of its choice.
If this is the way Mr Johnson thinks he will administer the kiss of life to the expiring Labour Party, then heaven help it -- and all of us.
The Alternative Vote Plus system is commonly described as an 'elegant' form of PR. But the reason it is seen as the Chanel of electoral reform is that it clothes an ungainly, even ugly reality in fashionably stylish garb so as not to repel the voters.
The heart sinks, not just because Mr Johnson has fired the starting-gun for every electoral anorak in the land to send us all glassy-eyed by pushing their own pet PR system -- and there are as many different forms of PR, it seems, as there are frocks at the Paris fashion shows.
No, it is because PR would be the one thing guaranteed to make our present difficulties even worse. It is not the solution to the expenses scandal. Indeed, it is a seriously bad idea all round.
One of the major benefits of our current 'first past the post' system is that when the government of the day loses the public's trust, the remedy is as effective as it is brutal. We can vote the rascals out in a clean break and get an entirely new administration, with its own different philosophy and programme.
The fact that the Government is currently refusing to allow us to do so by calling an election is a source of much of the present anger. And now it appears that the man who is riding over the hill to rescue parliamentary democracy will remove our power to vote the rascals out at all.
For under PR, while voters might manage to give the Prime Minister himself the boot, a new government gets cobbled together from many of the same old traditional apparatchiks, with MPs protected to a large extent by their party machines.
And that's the second reason why this is such a bad idea. For one of the causes of the current crisis is that MPs have become too beholden to their party. Their eyes are swivelled firmly towards the whips at Westminster, whereas they should be focusing instead on the interests of the constituents who elected them.
But the truth is that PR increases the power of the party machines. With these elites now so discredited, how can it possibly be a remedy to give them yet more power?
The main argument in favour of PR is that it is 'fair', because the composition of Parliament would reflect proportionally the range of opinion among the population.
What hooey. Not only is this a recipe for weak government, it is not fair at all. The government of the day would be stitched up after an election through horse-trading, in which the balance of power may be held by a party representing only a tiny number of voters.
Far from every voter being 'empowered', control passes into the hands of cabals which manipulate this inherently fragmented body behind closed doors.
In addition, extra 'top-up' MPs are selected by the party central command and imposed on the electorate, who have voted not for an individual but for a faceless political machine.
So the result may well be that more people have a voice in Parliament -- with the dubious benefit of a greater presence for fringe and extremist parties -- but the government's programme will end up being supported by no one at all.
In any event, why is this fairer than having Parliament composed of MPs who have each gained a majority in their constituencies? When did majorities stop being fair? Moreover, horse-trading and machine politics inevitably entrench corruption in the system. So how can such a lack of transparency possibly be an answer to the expenses scandal?
In Europe, where PR is the established electoral system, political corruption is endemic. Far from connecting to the political process, European electorates are dangerously alienated from it. Italy, Greece, Romania -- are these paragons of electoral justice really the kind of government we want?
Or closer to home, just look at the Scottish Parliament, which is mired in the politics of irrelevance as ministers in a minority government try to minimise the chances of defeat by avoiding controversial -- i.e. important -- topics.
So why is permanent minority government now being resurrected as an idea whose time has finally arrived? We are told that around half the Cabinet support it-- and even Gordon Brown has said he is considering some form of electoral reform.
This is surely the politics of those bitter bedfellows, desperation and opportunism. With Labour facing electoral wipe-out possibly in perpetuity, sharing power through PR is a way of avoiding political extinction.
It is also a way of ensuring that the Tory Party can never again govern Britain. That was why, during Labour's wilderness years in the Nineties, Tony Blair cooked up a similar scheme with the LibDem grandee Roy Jenkins to bring about a permanent progressive coalition government and thus destroy the Conservative Party.
That idea died because -- amazing to relate -- the pure flame of reformist idealism was snuffed out by the fact that Labour gained three successive whopping general election majorities.
But now the political wilderness looms once again for Labour, the same electoral reform package is being cynically dusted down -- and, what's more, by the same administration that has systematically used constitutional change as a radical fig leaf to conceal its bankruptcy when it comes to progressive ideas that would truly advance the welfare of the nation.
That constitutional vandalism (devolution, emasculating the House of Lords and handing over swathes of powers to Brussels), let it not be forgotten, has knocked the stuffing out of Parliament and helped create the demoralisation of MPs which led to the current scandal in the first place.
Now the wheel has come full circle, with PR being resurrected to deflect attention away from addressing the real issue -- the moral corruption of Members of Parliament and the need to hold them politically and legally to account.
If PR is the answer, MPs are asking themselves the wrong question.