Brown launches electoral reform plans

By Ian Dunt

Gordon Brown launched plans for electoral reform this morning that could bring fundamental changes to the way Britain votes.

MPs will vote next week on whether there should be a referendum on replacing ‘first-past-the-post’, the system currently used in general elections.

The prime minister, who has committed himself to a referendum after the general election, wants the plan to be inserted in the constitutional reform and governance bill, currently before parliament.

In a speech in London today he said a referendum could be held as early as autumn 2011 if Labour is returned to power.

“Politics shouldn’t be seen just as sport, spectacle or sideshow,” he said.

“For all its shortcomings it is the greatest vehicle mankind has yet devised for lasting peace and shared prosperity.”

The alternative vote system “offers a system where the British people can, if they so choose, be more confident that their MP truly represents them, while at the same time remaining directly accountable to them,” Mr Brown said.

The plan is strongly opposed by the Tories who claim it is the action of a desperate prime minister trying to change the rules of the game.

The Liberal Democrats, long-time advocates of electoral reform, want a far more radical system set up – proportional representation – and are uncomfortable with the timing of Mr Brown’s conversion to the cause.

Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said: “If this is confirmed then it is a deathbed conversion to electoral reform from a party facing an historic defeat, which is why scepticism is warranted.

“The alternative vote is a small step in the right direction, but it is not a proportional system and it does not give voters real power over both the party and the person elected as MP.”

Under the ‘alternative vote’ system backed by Mr Brown, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gains 50 per cent of the vote, their second choice votes are added to their tally until they hit the mark.

The system has the benefit of ensuring that everyone voted into parliament holds majority support in the constituency.

But it would do nothing to address many of the injustices activists point to when criticising the current system. MPs will still not be elected in proportion to the way the country voted.

Labour hopes the Tories will appear resistant to parliamentary reform through their opposition to the scheme.

The constitutional reform bill would also allow parties to elect their own members of select committees in a secret ballot, for select committee chairs to be elected by a ballot of the whole house, and non-government business managed by members of parliament, not the executive.

Constituents will be granted a power of recall over their MP in cases of serious financial impropriety -an idea originally touted by the Liberal Democrats.

Calls for a shake-up of British politics gained considerable traction in the aftermath of the expenses scandal.