Monday, 1 December 1997


Paul Anderson, Red Pepper, December 1997

The commission appointed last month to recommend an alternative system for Commons elections is a mixed blessing for anyone hoping for a proportional representation system in which a new green left party could win seats.

The good news is that the composition and brief of the five-strong Independent Commission on the Voting System, chaired by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, suggest that it will probably not recommend the alternative vote (AV), a non-proportional system, to put to voters in a referendum. The bad news is that it is likely to support a version of PR that excludes small parties from parliament.

The commission’s terms of reference are wide: it can ‘consider and recommend any appropriate system or combination of systems’ for parliamentary elections that satisfies the requirements of ‘broad proportionality, the need for stable government, an extension of voter choice and the maintenance of a link between MPs and geographical constituencies’. Ministerial opponents of PR insist the commission will be considering AV, but that is not compatible with the ‘broad proportionality’ criterion.

More important, although two of the members of the commission – journalist David Lipsey and Labour peer Baroness Gould – have in the past backed AV, both are said by colleagues to have moved towards a ‘soft’ PR system. Two other members, Jenkins himself and Tory peer Lord Alexander, are on record as backers of single transferable vote PR system (STV) favoured by the Liberal Democrats, although Jenkins is said to be flexible and Alexander’s support for STV is weak. The fifth member, retiring Northern Ireland Office mandarin Sir John Chilcot, has direct experience of STV in Northern Ireland local elections but has not expressed an opinion in public.

All this points to a recommendation of some sort of PR. It would be surprising, however, if the commission backs a version that would give parties with, say, 5-10 per cent support nationally –a realistic target for a British version of the German Greens – a chance of winning seats. The commission members are without exception centrist advocates of ‘stability’ rather than enthusiasts for a parliament in which all shades of opinion are given voice.

So the smart money is on their coming up with a hybrid system with a strong element of AV that gives already-represented parties greater proportionality but makes it difficult for anyone else to get MPs elected. There are two obvious candidates: a mixture of AV for rural areas and STV for towns and cities – favoured by some Lib Dems – or a watered-down version of the German additional member system (AMS), in which MPs elected by AV in constituencies would be ‘topped up’ from party lists to ensure greater overall proportionality (but only for parties that have already won single-member seats). Either would be marginally fairer than first past the post. Neither would provide too much encouragement for anyone who wants to break the grip of the established parties on British electoral politics.

The favourite is undoubtedly an AV-based AMS system – not least because it could be introduced in two stages, with AV for the next election and additional members tacked on in the one after that, round about 2007. Whether that’s worth taking seriously looks set to be a key question on the left for some time to come.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead As Labour home secretary in 1974, Roy Jenkins proposed that the voting system be included in a Speaker’s Conference on Commons reform; and in his 1979 Dimbleby lecture, which prepared the ground for the SDP’s split from Labour in 1981, he argued for electoral reform as an essential element of a new centrist political settlement for Britain. He backed STV as SDP leader in the early 1980s, but has not spoken out in its favour in recent years. The best guess is that he is now prepared to broker a compromise between supporters of AV and backers of a proportional system – probably a conservative version of AMS in which constituency MPs are elected by AV and regional top-up representation is limited to parties that have won constituency seats.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton Labour’s director of organisation during its purge of Militant, Joyce Gould was between 1989 and 1993 a member of the party’s commission on voting systems chaired by Raymond Plant. She backed a version of AV then, but has subsequently moved towards AMS and is now – ironically – probably the best hope of the anyone who would like the commission to recommend a PR system that would not rule out representation for a green left party.

Lord Alexander of Weedon A Tory peer who is chairman of the National Westminster Bank, Robert Alexander declared a ‘tentative personal preference’ for STV in a recent book, The Voice of The People.

David Lipsey The political editor of the Economist, Lipsey was in the 1970s a protégé of and adviser to the Labour right guru Anthony Crosland. In 1992, he was strongly in favour of the alternative vote, which he described in a Fabian pamphlet as having ‘immense attractions’ because ‘party discipline remains important, fragmentation is discouraged and extremists are still excluded from parliament’. Since the 1997 election, he appears to have become more open to the idea of proportionality – but is likely to back a conservative AV-AMS or AV-STV hybrid.

Sir John Chilcot As a senior civil servant – he is the retiring Permanent Secretary at the Northern Ireland Office – Chilcot has not been allowed to make public statements on the electoral system, although he has seen STV in action in local elections in Northern Ireland.

The main options that the commission will consider are variations on the alternative vote (AV), the single transferable vote (STV) and the additional member system (AMS).

AV, used in Australia, retains single-member constituencies from first past the post but changes the marking of ballots to ‘1, 2, 3’ and so on in order of preference. If no candidate gets 50 per cent of first preferences, the second preferences of the candidate with the fewest votes are added to the other candidates’ totals. This process continues until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote. AV is not proportional. There are several variants, one of which was recommended for the Commons by Labour’s working party on electoral systems in 1993.

Under STV, favoured by the Liberal Democrats and used in Ireland, electors in multi-member constituencies mark their ballot papers ‘1, 2, 3’ and so on in order of preference. Candidates reaching a certain proportion of the vote on first preferences are declared elected, then second preferences of the candidate with least first preferences are redistributed. The process continues until all seats are filled.

Under AMS, backed by most of Labour’s proportional representation lobby and used in Germany, electors vote once for a constituency candidate and once for a party. Successful constituency candidates are ‘topped up’ from party lists to ensure proportionality. The single-member constituency element in an AMS system can be either FPTP or AV, and in most existing versions there is a threshold of a certain number of constituency seats or percentage of the vote (in Germany three seats or 5 per cent) before a party wins seats from regional lists. It would be easy to design an AMS system that denied top-up seats to any party that had not won in a constituency – or to set a high percentage threshold for top-up representation.


D-tour, December 1997

Ken Livingstone wants to be London mayor – but he thinks the Labour leadership will stop him standing, he tells Paul Anderson

Just three months ago, Ken Livingstone was a marginal figure on the Labour left, out of favour with Tony Blair’s new government, yesterday’s man.

But then the MP for Brent South surprised all the pundits by beating Peter Mandelson to a place on Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee – and suddenly he was news for the first time in years. People started talking about him as the leader of the left in parliament and as a candidate for the new post of elected mayor of London. With the Blair government running into its first patches of turbulence, Red Ken has been on the television every other night making trouble.

Relaxing over a coffee in the Italian café on Whitehall, he seems pleased about his return to the limelight. “Politics gets reported as a sprint run,” he says in his famously nasal drawl. “In reality it’s a marathon. You may seem to be totally isolated. But suddenly events turn, and then you’re back in the frame. After being kicked off the NEC in 1989, I had eight years of people saying I was finished. But that isn’t real politics. Real politics is about sticking in there until the circumstances are favourable and then exploiting them as best you can.”

“The circumstances” now are, of course, the election of a Labour government with plans for a London-wide authority with a directly elected mayor and city council. Livingstone was the last leader of the capital’s last city-wide authority, the Greater London Council, abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1986 – but he’s no enthusiast for the government’s scheme. He believes that an elected mayor will be unaccountable between elections and accessible only to the rich and powerful. “I prefer a system where there’s a leader of a council, maybe called the mayor, who’s elected by a majority on the council,” he says. “You then have some way of affecting the mayor’s decisions through the parties, and if needs be the council can get rid of him or her. If you have an elected mayor for four or five years – well, if they go bad or mad, you’re stuffed.”

He also thinks that the new London authority needs far greater powers than the government proposes, not least to raise its own taxes. In the end, however, he’ll back the government plan. “Anything’s better than nothing,” he says.

But will he be running for the post? “I’d very much like to be a candidate,” he says. “But there’s going to be a clause in the bill that says ‘white men born in Streatham in 1945 aren’t eligible to stand’. They can’t have something saying ‘Ken Livingstone can’t stand’, but if they make it a general proscription against a class of people, it’s no problem. I suspect the Labour leadership will say that you can’t stand if you’re an MP – and I’m not going to give up my seat in parliament.”

He’d ideally like to be both mayor and an MP. “The government won’t give London tax-raising powers, so if you’re mayor, your main task is to get back from the government more of London’s money. Each year London puts into the national government £6.2 billion more than it gets back. If we had the same level of public spending per head that Scotland’s got, we’d have an extra £4.4 billion. With that sort of cash, we wouldn’t have people sleeping on the streets or the transport system breaking down. And the best place to make that case is on the floor of the House of Commons. Otherwise they’ll just give you a large brandy and show you the door.”

Livingstone believes that transport is the new authority’s first priority. “You’ve got to be able to reduce fares and put conductors back on the buses so there are fewer delays. And you need the power to make local boroughs put in cycle routes and bus lanes.” Otherwise, he says, the authority should play a leading role in creating jobs in inner London and in arts and culture policy.
It is clear he sees the old GLC as a model for how it should all work. “We started listening to Londoners. People felt they had an influence on it. You can’t have an influence on the present government – unless you’ve contributed £1 million to the Labour Party, and that gives you access to the prime minister.”

The dig at Blair is a reminder of Livingstone’s deep dissatisfaction with the government. He warms to his theme. “I’ll give it six out of ten,” he says. “They’re doing brilliantly on Ireland. But denying Londoners the choice of what sort of elected authority they want is a disgrace. So is the refusal to back the anti-hunting bill and go for tuition fees for students. But the most appalling scandal is taking the six quid off the single parents. Tax revenues are flooding in because the economy is booming. It’s just a macho thing to show the bankers that they can trust us to screw the poor.”

Our hour is almost up, and Livingstone has another meeting. “My life is one long meeting,” he moans as we wait for the bill. “I don’t have a lot of time for a lot of things I love, like hanging around in cafés in Soho. We’ve got to pedestrianise Soho, you know. I get to work at ten, get home to Cricklewood at eleven, watch Newsnight, drink half a bottle of wine and crash out. My record collection peters out in about 1973. The one thing I always make time for though is to take in at least one film a week. That’s my culture. I loved LA Confidential and Excess Baggage. I hated Event Horizon and Face/Off. You can’t believe how bad Face/Off is.”

And with that, he’s back to his office, then off to the Commons for a vote, then a cab to a television studio. “You know, I sometimes think I’d like to give it up and spend half my time just reading books,” he says. “It’s a ridiculous life. But I love it really.”


Red Pepper, December 1997

The future of Wayne David as leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party hangs in the balance after he and EPLP chief whip Simon Murphy were forced to abandon the suspensions of the “Strasbourg four” dissident Labour MEPs last month.

At a meeting of the EPLP on 11 November, Labour MEPs voted overwhelmingly for a deal to reinstate the four  –  Ken Coates, Alex Falconer, Michael Hindley and Hugh Kerr  –  who had rejected a Labour National Executive Committee code of conduct because it banned them from commenting in public on government plans to introduce a “closed list” system of proportional representation for Euro-elections.

The four agreed to a memorandum of understanding drawn up by EPLP chair Roger Barton, supposedly clarifying the code of conduct but in fact modifying it to allow MEPs to speak their minds publicly on the government’s electoral reform plans and to express their opinions ‘within the Labour Party’ on the method for selecting Labour’s candidates.

The deal is a humiliating setback for David and Murphy, who had staked their credibility as EPLP leader and chief whip on the decision in October to suspend the four, believing that they were acting in accordance with the wishes of Tony Blair. Whether or not they were, the London leadership was taken aback by the strength of opposition to the suspensions not only among other Labour MEPs but also in the press. When Barton, a close ally of John Prescott, hatched his plan for a face-saving compromise, London supported him fully.

MEPs are now openly speculating how long David can last as leader of Labour’s 62 MEPs. First elected in 1994, he incurred Blair’s displeasure in autumn that year by defending Clause Four of the Labour constitution, but subsequently rallied to his side after half the EPLP were named as signatories to a pro-Clause Four Guardian advertisement. Last year, he was embroiled in controversy after he threatened Hugh Kerr with loss of the party whip for allegedly heckling Blair at Labour conference. David recovered sufficient left support to beat off a challenge to his leadership this summer from the right-wing Alan Donnelly  –  but his position is now “at best precarious”, in the words of one former supporter.

It remains to be seen whether the reinstatement of the four will lead to an improvement in relations between the EPLP and the Labour leadership in London. Many MEPs, by no means all on the left, have been critical of what they see as heavy-handed attempts by London, particularly since the election of a Labour government, to dictate policy to them.

Labour’s choice of a “closed list” system of PR for the 1999 Euro-elections is controversial because such a system would not allow voters to vote for individual candidates or to split their votes among parties. Moreover, suspicions are rife that Blair plans to prevent many existing MEPs from being candidates in 1999  –  by imposing all Labour candidates with no ballot of members, by making sure that leadership loyalists take all the places at the top of each regional list, or by excluding “awkward” MEPs on disciplinary grounds. In the past couple of months, several sitting left-wing MEPs have been discussing the possibility of standing against Labour on a red-green list if they are indeed purged.

The deal on the code of conduct appears to indicate a new willingness by London to negotiate and compromise with the EPLP. But MEPs’ fears about the electoral system for 1999 and the selection process will not be easily assuaged. Something says that this story will run and run.