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John Rentoul

John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting fellow at Queen Mary, University of London, where he teaches contemporary history. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.

"The Independent's must-read man" - Daniel Finkelstein

You can contact John in the comments area or email him at j.rentoul@independent.co.uk

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Really interesting post

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 08:34 pm
All right, Gordon Brown has asked for it. He wants a national debate on electoral reform. Although he made his view plain: "I still believe the link between the MP and constituency is essential and that it is the constituency that is best able to hold MPs to account." 

So he would like a debate between keeping the voting system as it is (David Cameron's position today) and some form of preferential voting in single-member constituencies.

But the debate in the House of Commons when Brown made his statement on constitutional reform after Prime Minister's Questions was strange. No one was very interested in big-ticket constitutional reform, such as changing the voting system or the House of Lords. Most of the debate focused on the Government's control of Commons business (the use of programme or "guillotine" motions preventing thorough debate on legislation) and of appointments to select committees. 

Brown's answer to most Conservative points was that they seemed to be in denial about the need for the whole House to face up to the fact that it had "let the country down" over expenses. Absolutely: and the issue of electoral reform is almost completely irrelevant to the expenses issue.

However, the nerds and the pointy-heads have been let out of the secure accommodation to which they have been safely confined for the past 11 years, since Tony Blair pretended to take Roy Jenkins seriously on the subject of electoral reform in his report of 1998. The debate is up and running and my inbox is full of email press releases from constitutional reformers saying that the Alternative Vote is not good enough and it wasn't the fault of proportional representation that the BNP won two European Parliament seats.

I have two nerdy contributions.

One is that the usual version of the Alternative Vote, around which the Labour Party seems to be coalescing, is not the best. Obviously, voters should be allowed to list candidates in order of preference. But there are different ways those preferences can be counted. Internal Labour Party elections use the exhaustive ballot system, eliminating the candidate with the lowest number of first preferences and reallocating successively, until one candidate obtains more than half the valid votes.

A better way is simply to eliminate all candidates apart from the top two on first preferences, and to allocate all remaining votes that express a preference between the two leading candidates accordingly. This is, in effect, the French two-ballot system in a single vote. Its effect is to give more weight to first preferences, and means that a candidate that comes third or lower in first-preference votes cannot come through the middle.

Two is that changing the voting system for the House of Commons should not be separated from completing the reform of the House of Lords. Because if the second chamber is going to be elected, or partly elected, then the form of its election should be considered at the same time.

My view is that a revising and delaying chamber is the right place for proportional representation, and the parties should have seats in it in proportion to their total of first preferences across the country in elections to the House of Commons. I would have 80 per cent of each party's seats filled from a list elected in a separate ballot, possibly in regions, and 20 per cent appointed by the party leader. 

On balance, I favour a few unelected people being brought in to serve in government - although the model is Andrew Adonis rather than Glenys Kinnock - and in opposition.

So there you have it. The Rentoul system of electoral reform perfection. A thousand apologies. Normal service will now be resumed.

Comments

Sad - more power to the parties
billdavy1949 wrote:
Thursday, 11 June 2009 at 09:26 am (UTC)
We need to vote for individuals.

Also, what is wrong with a third candidate (based on first preference) winning? It's called a compromise.

For example, you would not (in Cold War Days) have got US and USSR (and their satellites) to agree on a leader for the UN, so a third candidate had to be found who was more or less acceptable to US and USSR and was probably better than having either of their first choices.
Electoral reform - bring in AV now
brian_robinson wrote:
Thursday, 11 June 2009 at 12:45 pm (UTC)
Gordon Brown's comment that "the link between the MP and constituency is essential" does not necessarily mean we would have to choose between the present system and a version of the Alternative Vote. The constituency link can be maintained, and even enhanced, with multi-member constituencies. Having several MPs to represent a larger constituency would mean more chance I would identify with one of them, making it easier for me to approach that person if I need to, and giving me more of a feeling of a personal connection.

However, the clear advantage of the Alternative Vote is it could be implemented very easily. It would be an improvement over the present system, whether it's an "exhaustive ballot system" or John Rentoul's preferred version of "in effect, the French two-ballot system in a single vote". We could have a referendum at the next election, with the system to be used at subsequent elections if approved in that referendum. David Cameron is already trying to pre-empt such a move by saying Brown only wants to change the system because he is going to lose. That may be true, and I am no fan of Brown; but the bigger truth is that a Cameron government would be an obstacle to democratic renewal in this country. We need change now. Further reform could then follow, but let's set our sights on what is achievable straight away.

On party list systems, I agree with the comment above: "We need to vote for individuals." The parties serve a useful purpose and should continue to do so, but let's reduce their say in who our representatives are, not increase it. At present if I want to vote for a particular party I have to vote for the candidate the party chooses. Under an Alternative Vote system, especially the exhaustive ballot version, the party could give me a choice without shooting themselves in the foot by splitting their vote. It's a system I think all reformers - including people, like me, who think reform should go much further - could agree is better than what we are lumbered with at present, and it could be put to a referendum now.
Blair WAS serious on PR. Brown isn't,, never was & never will be.
blairsupporter wrote:
Saturday, 2 January 2010 at 04:23 pm (UTC)
I'm not with you on this bit, John:

"However, the nerds and the pointy-heads have been let out of the secure accommodation to which they have been safely confined for the past 11 years, since Tony Blair pretended to take Roy Jenkins seriously on the subject of electoral reform in his report of 1998."

I think Blair WAS serious about this. He respected and trusted Roy Jenkins, who became known as his mentor. Blair wanted to understand all the benefits and drawbacks of proportional representation from a man he trusted. If he'd asked Brown or Prescott, the report would have been very different, AS WE ALL KNOW. (I've taken a certain unexpected fondness to this phrase, used so freely by the Blair haters, btw. Makes one feel all warm and cosy inside to actually KNOW something.)

Paddy Ashdown's Diaries too are a good source for this information on Blair's then openness to electoral reform and coalitions. Ashdown is convinced that Blair was serious. I am too. Otherwise why continue to meet with Paddy well after his landslide of 1997, which he did?

http://keeptonyblairforpm.wordpress.com/ashdown-blair-the-great-coalitionmerger-plan/

He was serious in airing the electoral reform issue but more serious perhaps about working with the Liberal Democrats, thus forming a large, natural anti-Tory grouping, better reflecting the non-Conservative voting majority in the country. Perhaps his real intention was to subsume the Lib Dems, but that would only have happened, he must have known, if a confluence of interests and policies was clear, natural and unable to be ignored.

It might well have been - right up until 9/11.

The problems and roadblocks from both sides were to prove insurmountable of course. But it took Blair well into 1998, even 1999 to drop it, after pressure from Brown and Prescott.

Alastair Campbell refers to this too in his Diaries, with utter effing shock that the love-ins that dared not speak their name between Paddy & 'OMF' (Our mutal friend - Tony) had been going on for so long, and even Campbell didn't know about the secret liasons.

More from Campbell's 'The Blair Years' here:

http://keeptonyblairforpm.wordpress.com/alastair-campbell-the-blair-years/
Re: Blair WAS serious on PR. Brown isn't,, never was & never will be.
j_rentoul wrote:
Saturday, 2 January 2010 at 04:30 pm (UTC)
Re: Blair WAS serious on PR. Brown isn't, never was & never will be.
blairsupporter wrote:
Saturday, 2 January 2010 at 06:00 pm (UTC)
John, we'll never agree on everything. As long as you don't call OUR MAN a "puffed-up gasbag" etc I'm OK with your opinions on Roy Jenkins.

The rest of your 2005 article is more painful, actually. Blair DID bring Britain closer to the EU, and when he got TOO close our friends and allies kicked him and us in the teeth.

Jenkins was convivial and interesting company, on a personal level.
Electoral reform
richardlord wrote:
Sunday, 18 April 2010 at 12:44 pm (UTC)
Your proposal for the House of Commons sounds sensible. When it comes to the House of Lords, I think it's a shame if all candidates have to be members of a political party (however small that party might be), which would seem the case with proportional representation.
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