`No rush' for voting reform

RENEWAL of British democracy has become the buzz phrase among leading politicians as the system which we once prided ourselves on is mired in the expenses scandal and the election of far right candidates to represent us in the European Parliament.

Graham Dines

RENEWAL of British democracy has become the buzz phrase among leading politicians as the system which we once prided ourselves on is mired in the expenses scandal and the election of far right candidates to represent us in the European Parliament.

When Euro hopefuls and the media mingled on Sunday night at the drab St Ivo Centre in Cambridgeshire which doubles once every five years as the East of England regional counting centre for the European elections, it was soon obvious that the unpopular list system of proportional representation was not about to gain any converts.

A closed list confuses and annoys voters. They have one vote and have to choose a party to support, and have no affinity with the people who emerge as MEPs from some sort of secret conclave of papal and Masonic proportions.

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Andrew Duff, who was re-elected as a Liberal Democrat for the East of England, put forward a suggestion which seems much preferable to the closed list we have. He backs an open list, in which electors still have one vote - however they do not cast it for a party but for an individual from that list. It's known as the partial open list.

For example, if you want to vote Conservative, you choose one name from the Tory list and put a cross beside the name. It means the election becomes not only a contest between the parties but between the candidates - a sure way for friends to fall out, but it does give power back to the people.

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Just how proportional this would be is open to question - it could mean that the winning candidates have less than 10% support across a regional constituency.

In exchanges this week in the Commons on electoral reform, the Prime Minister said there would be no rush to change our traditional first-past-the-post, which would require legislation and a referendum.

“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. We should only be prepared to propose change if there was a broad consensus in the country that it would strengthen our democracy and our politics by improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of both Government and Parliament.”

Brown has always been one of the roadblocks in the way of reform. If we do ditch the winner takes all system, the only method which might gain political and popular endorsement is the alternative vote, under which voters mark candidates on the ballot papers in order of preference and these are redistributed until a winner emerges with more than 50% of the vote.

We would still vote in constituencies and have a clearly identifiable MP. The downside is that landslides would become even bigger - the alternative vote in 1997 which was the ABC (Anybody but Conservative) election would have left the Tories with literally just a handful of seats, while in 1983 Labour would have been annihilated.

The Prime Minister, who is also proposing outside regulation of parliament, an elected House of Lords and is considering fixed term parliaments and a written constitution, said: “No more can Westminster operate in ways reminiscent of the last century where the members make up the rules and operate them among themselves.”

Tory leader David Cameron doesn't seem to grasp that the way we were cannot much last much longer.

“Let me reaffirm. We believe this (proportional representation) is a recipe for weak coalition governments,” said Cameron. “Instead of voters choosing their Government on the basis of manifestos, doesn't it all too often mean party managers choosing on the basis of backroom deals?

“Our view is clear - we should not take away from the British people the right to get rid of weak, tired and discredited governments.”

The only good which results from Cameron's intransigence is that without voting reform, there is little chance of the British National Party winning a first-past-the-post parliamentary seat at Westminster.

GORDON Brown faces one final problem before he heads off for his summer break - the Norwich North by-election, caused by the resignation of Dr Ian Gibson over allegations concerning his expenses claims.

Polling day in Norwich North and also Glasgow North East looks likely to be July 23, conveniently when most potential Labour rebels will not be at Westminster because of the long vacation.

Norwich North is a mix of urban, suburban and rural and for Labour bears a frightening resemblance to Crewe and Nantwich, scene of the Tories' triumph last year, with the swing needed for change even lower at 5.8%.

Surprisingly less than half the electorate lives within the city boundaries with the remainder in Broadland District. In last week's county council elections, the constituency's four Norwich wards saw the return of Labour in only one, by just 99 votes, with one for the Tories and two for the Green Party which has recently seen a surge in support in the city. The Tories won comfortably in the Broadland divisions.

Although calculating party support ahead of the by-election is difficult due to division boundaries overlapping constituency ones, the Press Association's best guess is that Norwich South last week would have voted: Conservative 10,656 (40.1%); Labour 4,953 (18.6%); Liberal Democrat 4,371 (16.5%); Green Party 4,251 (16.0%), UKIP 2,106, and the BNP 228 (0.9%).

There is another test in the Glasgow North East constituency of retiring Speaker Michael Martin. It is traditional Labour territory but next-door Glasgow East switched to the SNP last July.

In the Euro elections, on a turnout of just 21.5% in the area, Labour polled 5,244 in Glasgow North East to the SNP's 3,177.

I WAS relieved for two reasons on Sunday when the British National Party failed to win a European Parliament seat in the East of England.

Firstly, only 97,013 people voted BNP across the six counties, nowhere near enough to win a seat under the electoral system in use. It meant the party's message had been largely ignored.

But secondly, in a democracy, the will of the people cannot be ignored. If the BNP had won, then however regrettable, the party would have been properly elected and entitled to media scrutiny and publicity, especially on policies which directly affect the electorate.

That would have put me in a difficult position. The EADT offers Euro MPs of all parties representing this region a regular column on their activities in Brussels and Strasbourg - we either give all political parties their say, no matter what their politics, or none at all.

In the event, the BNP were 70,000 votes adrift of winning a seat in the East. The party was, however, successful in the North West and Yorkshire & Humberside regions.

BNP leader Nick Griffin and his fellow Euro MP Andrew Brons have begun the search for political allies in the newly elected European Parliament. They have plenty of choice after the elections delivered significant far-right gains across Europe.

Forming a recognised political grouping in Brussels and Strasbourg requires at least 25 MEPs from seven member states �- a new threshold imposed to avoid bands of extreme or maverick MEPs building alliances which give them the full financial and political status political group membership brings.

The BNP's potential political bedfellows come from a collection of far-right factions in France, Hungary, Austria, Finland, Denmark, Italy and Romania.

ANN Widdecombe or Margaret Beckett? The contest to become Speaker of the House of Commons assumed gravitas this week when both these veteran politicians announced they were in the running for the job which Michael Martin quits next weekend.

Tory Widdecombe has a commanding voice and does have respect from all sides of the House. Labour's Beckett - who, don't forget, was acting leader of the party in the interregnum between John Smith's death and Tony Blair's election - has spent enough time in politics to fully appreciate the role of Parliament against the executive.

Widdecombe told GMTV: “We have got to restore the reputation of the House of Commons with the public and that means somebody who can connect with the public, which I believe I can do very well.'

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