Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Electoral and constitutional reform in the UK

The UK's coalition government is pressing ahead with their plans for electoral reform, announcing a referendum on the alternative vote to be held at the same time as local body and regional elections next year. As reforms go, its mild - AV, or preferential voting, is the electoral reform you have when you don't want electoral reform, and still leads to wildly disproportionate and unfair outcomes - but its still too much for much of the British political establishment, who are already digging their heels in and challenging the date, the proposed system, and the fact that people are talking reform at all. For these dinosaurs, the idea of having a referendum at the same time as other elections will be "too confusing" for voters (what a low opinion they have of us), while self-centred nationalists are afraid that their regional elections will be overshadowed by another issue. Others disagree with any departure from the present unfair and undemocratic system, which sees power (and funding) concentrated in a tiny handful of key marginal seats, and will not countenance any change. Despite all the evidence, they are asserting that an electoral system which didn't work back in the C18th is still good enough for today. Meanwhile, the Labour Party, who pe-election were supporting electoral reform to annoy the Tories, are now opposing it to annoy the Tories. Progressive principle? Screw that; shabby tactical considerations are apparently more important.

Its easy to laugh, but there's a real danger these dinosaurs will win. And if they do, they will demonstrate that the UK's political system is essentially unreformable by democratic means, with all that that implies for the legitimacy not just of the government, but of the entire state.

At least the UK will finally be getting equal-sized electorates, a basic of any democratic system. But when the entire system is rotten, that's just window-dressing. Naturally UK Labour opposes this too, for the same shabby tactical reasons.

The UK will also be getting fixed-term Parliaments, and even better, will be putting the conventions around confidence and dissolution in statute. One change from the original proposal is to put a 14-day time limit on mid-term caretaker governments; if a government loses a vote of confidence, a dissolution and general election will automatically follow after two weeks unless a new government is formed. Otherwise, a two-thirds majority of parliament will be required. Of course, the latter can be bypassed, German-style: a government wanting an early election could vote itself out of office, and block any attempt to form a new government. But that would be far more public than the present method, where the PM can wake up one morning - or get drunk one night - and decide to hold an election. When their legislation is released, it will be worth looking at to see whether it can be adapted for New Zealand.