Yesterday saw an expected yet still disappointing response from the Government to the various post-election electoral reform petitions. Expected, because we all know that there’s no way this Government is going to concede electoral reform, yet disappointing because it reveals that the minister for constitutional reform may have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.
In response to petitions demanding a properly proportional electoral system, his response was that ‘we had a referendum on it in 2011’. The 2011 referendum was lost, and lost badly, but it was definitely not a referendum on adopting a proportional system. The question was, if you forget:
At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?
You’ll notice, of course, that there’s no mention there of any proportional electoral system, merely a question about whether one majoritarian system should be used in place of another. Also note that it doesn’t ask for any affirmation of the current system above all others: the question was not ‘do you agree that “first past the post” is great and should never ever be changed?’
There were other referendums during the last Parliament, of course, with several cities being told that they had to have votes on whether they wanted an elected Mayor to run their Council. Bristol and Salford voted yes but a whole host of England’s largest cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle and others – voted No.
Despite this, the Government is pushing forward with plans to give these cities – and ‘city regions’ – their own mayors whether they want them or not. Manchester’s ‘interim Mayor’ has already been agreed and selected by ten people without any consultation with the electorate, and other areas are going to find that George Osborne will be imposing one upon them if they want to have any new powers, with ‘devolution’ being used as an excuse for even more centralisation. In this case, despite the people voting against it more recently than 2011, the Government’s going to go ahead and do what it wants.
‘But Nick!’ you cry, desperate to defend George Osborne. ‘These are different to the Mayors they rejected. These are Metro Mayors and regional Mayors, covering wider areas than those that voted in the referendums, so it’s a completely different thing!’ And you may well be right, but if you’re going to make that argument, you can’t also claim that any electoral reform is off the agenda because of the AV referendum as that was merely vote on a tweak to the current majoritarian system, not a change to a proportional one. I’m happy to concede that the referendum rejected AV, but had nothing to say about other electoral systems and if a future Parliament chooses to change the system it can do so – as long as it’s not to AV.
Unfortunately, we have a government where the minister for constitutional reform doesn’t seem to understand even the basics of what’s happened before, so we can expect lots more confusion over the Parliament. If that wasn’t a five year period in which some important constitutional questions are going to be discussed heavily, it’d almost be funny.