Since everyone seems to be giving politicians advice regarding the constitutional crisis, I thought I’d have a go, in an open letter to Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Health, who recently called for a referendum on proportional representation.
Dear Alan Johnson,
On the 4th of June, Labour will probably do badly in the European election. In fact, they are likely to do worse than the 22% of the vote they got in the 2004 European election; if this happens it’ll be their worst result in a nationwide poll since the 1910 general election. This will make it even more likely that the Conservatives will win the next general election. The last time they won power, they held on to it for 18 years. I’m old enough to remember Thatcherism and I have zero enthusiasm for a repeat performance.
You’ve recently called for a referendum on proportional representation (the AV+ system proposed by Roy Jenkins). This is a good idea, but you should go further and have a referendum not just on PR, but on a range of constitutional issues, allowing the public to vote separately on such measures as:
- recall elections for MPs
- a fixed term for the House of Commons
- the number of MPs (whether it should be reduced from the current 646)
- whether the House of Lords should be wholly or partly elected
- whether an elected House of Lords should have more powers than it has now
- limitations to funding of political parties
- citizens’ initiative petitions that can force a referendum on any issue
- and other measures that may be put forward
If you (by you I mean the government) want to be truly radical, you could even allow the people to decide which measures are to be voted on, by creating a website that allows people to propose measures to be put into the referendum, and to comment and vote on measures that others have proposed. President Obama successfully did this before his inauguration with his change.gov website. Doing so would make it look like you’re listening to people (really listening I mean, not like the phoney “Big Conversation” public relations exercise you did a few years ago). You could also use the Number 10 website’s petition facility, although it allows less interaction than change.gov did.
This super-referendum shouldn’t be held on the day of the general election, because if it is these important issues will be drowned out by the question of who runs the country. And if the referendum leads to changes in the voting system or number of MPs, these can be put in place before the general election.
Why should the government do this? The underlying reason for the anger that poured out during the expenses scandal was that the people felt powerless and that they had no control over politicians. Resolving the constitutional crisis by a super-referendum would in itself restore power to the people, as would any changes that resulted from it. These changes, or something like them, need to happen to restore people’s faith in politics.
That’s the principled reason. There are also strong reasons of self-interest why Labour might want to do this.
1. You’ve nothing to lose. If you do nothing, Labour is heading for a massive defeat, followed by a decade or two of Tory rule. The recriminations following Labour’s defeat will mean you’ll be out of power fo a long time, and it’s even possible (but unlikely) that the Labour Party won’t recover.
2. It’ll be popular. Acting quickly and decisively will make you look good. Giving the people a choice in a referendum will improve the government’s popularity, because it shows you’re responsive to their desires.
3. It’ll clip Cameron’s wings. Any constitutional changes would limit the power of government, so an incoming Cameron administration would be able to do less damage. And if the people vote for PR, there may not be a Cameron administration after all.
Some people think it’s unlikely that Gordon Brown would take such dramatic and decisive action. In such an event it would be for others, such as yourself, to take over the reins of leadership and do what needs doing for the nation and the Labour Party.