File spoon-archives/marxism-international.archive/marxism-international_1997/marxism-international.9710, message 75

Date: Mon, 06 Oct 1997 08:39:18 +0100
Subject: M-I: Australian PR for England

There have been fast moving developments in England/Britain over the last
few weeks. Some of these have been by government inspired leaks, which
partly through fortune and partly through deliberate timing, have received
little protest and have virtually become faits accomplis. There are so many
that it is difficult to catch up.

One of these is the leak Sunday morning to the Sunday Times that Blair has
now come down in favour of some from of proportional representation. When
Labour was in opposition he was understood to be rather unsympathetic, but
performed a balancing act, with Robin Cook as the most senior member Labour
leader steering the agenda forward, and Jack Straw the most senior member

4 developments have prepared the ground for the latest leak. The success of
the Scottish referendum on their own parliament, also automatically
endorses extensive discussions among Scottish oppponents of the
Conservatives over many years, that the form of voting they want is
proportional representation. (An incidental impetus may be that just at the
time of this success there was a lot of controversy about alleged
corruption in a Labour dominated Scottish local council. The problem of
accountability in pocket boroughs that have been under one party rule,
because of the first past the post system, for scores of years, will now
work against the Labour Party. Although this is not yet on the agenda, (a
Fabian society pamphlet is soon to come out if it is not out already) this
may stimulate a sense of the fragility of massive majorities under first
past the post.

The Welsh referendum, although won only by a whisker (possibly because of
unease about whether this implied further privileges for the Welsh
language) was clearly endorsed by the central Labour Government, and that
too (unless I stand in need of immediate correction) will bring in an
assembly also on PR.

Talks in northern Ireland are moving ahead on substantive issues, and it is
highly likely that Blair hopes to finesse the struggle within the global
context of a federal Britain.
Northern Ireland has long had PR, and its continuation at least in some
form is not questioned.

Fourthly, despite some sparing between Labour and Liberal Democrats, there
have been announcements recently confirming that Paddy Ashdown, the leader
of the LD's will serve on a Government committee looking at constitutional
reform. The two leaders have carried  out their party conferences carefully
balancing the competition between the two parties in such a way as to keep
in dialogue. Blair most significantly in his passion speech to the
conference named 3 socialist heroes of his, and then 3 Liberal heroes. His
speech marked a significant blow against the 20th century project of the
Labour Representation Committee based on trade unions, and instead a
strategy of a broad left-liberal coalition of interests spanning the
majority of working people, including the millions who do not consider
themeselves working class.

While New Labour raises opportunism to a matter of principle, which is why
the timing of every announcement has to be analysed, it also attempts to
reduce the running of bourgeois society to the management of
technicalities. The leak to the Sunday Times therefore does several things
at once. By The ST political editor, it reports that Blair has now come off
the fence and is in favour of discussing electoral reform for the House of
Commons. It is now suggested that he may even call for a referendum before
the next election, with the implication that the next election could be
fought on the new system. 

The system he wants included in discussion is described as the Australian
system (Gary et al??) of Alternative Vote. Its attractions to Blair are
openly mentioned as that he thinks it could keep the Conservative Party in
the wilderness for decades, and also that it would not require Labour MP's
to vote for losing their seats. Under this system, voters mark the ballot
paper with a 1, 2, 3 choise to indicate their order of preference. The
second and third choice votes are then reallocated until one candidate
receives more than 50% of the  votes cast.

A study that they are keen to quote, suggests that if the May election had
been fought on AV (alternative vote) Labour would have won 452 seats
instead of the 419 under first past the post. The Liberal Democrats would
have secured 90 instead of 46, and the Conservative MP's would have been
almost halved from 165 to 88.

The report cunningly says that Blair will not declare his hand till next
year, but the leak at the start of the Conservative Conference will rattle
that party, and also although the Liberal Democrats had been trying to keep
AV off the electoral reform agenda, it acclimatises them to the idea that
it will be discussed and may turn out to be their best option.

Some left radicals like Arthur Scargill (but not Tony Benn!) have favoured
PR as an opportunity to campaign meaningfully for radical alternatives to
bourgeois liberal governments. Ken Livingston in his comments on his
surprise success in the Labour Party internal elections suggested that at
next year's Labour conference, the radicals should have a series of fringe
meetings. This could keep the options open for various permutations of
socialist parties to the left of New Labour.

The AV vote system appears very strongly to favour the populist centre,
however the populist centre is perceived to be, under the influence of the
capitalist dominated media, and I assume is undesirable from a radical
democratic or socialist point of view. Can anyone comment on whether it
provides any platform at all for left wing critics of reformist govenment

This item is not about armed struggle but it is about power, and the
interests of classes and strata. I do not think marxists should overlook or
belittle the possible significance of reforms like this even though they
are clearly not a revolution. This year is the 400th anniversary of the
Putney Debates within the Army Council about the appropriate electoral
system. The Levellers may have had the best arguments in abstract, but
insufficiently persuasive ones in practice. 2 years later Levellers were
shot in Burford parish church, and the movement was effectively put down,
the spirit of it and kindred ideas, persisting in the non-conformist

Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. It also grows out of the
system of managing that power, however much the gun is kept very much in
the background for "exceptional cases". These technical arguments are in
fact much more than mere technicalities. 

Chris Burford


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