Archive for May 13th, 2010

Who should be voting on electoral reform?

May 13, 2010

In which Dr Aust lets another member of the family have the pulpit.

This will probably be the last UK election-related post – something I suspect some readers will be glad of – unless I write later about our new Minister for Universities and Science. However, as you have probably heard enough from me on politics, I thought I would let another member of the family have the last word on events last week.

As those who read my “Electoral Eve Wavering” post may remember, my dad, who is the real scientist in the family, was a Labour candidate for Parliament back in the 60s. Later, in the 80s, he was an early member of the now defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP).

As you will see from the letter below, which he wrote to send to one of the national newspapers, he is not a tremendous fan of our current voting system.

People with long memories may recall that the SDP allied itself with the Liberals for the general elections of 1983 and 1987. I will quote from the Wikipedia entry:

“The Alliance did well in the 1983 general election, winning 25% of the national vote, close behind Labour’s 28%. Because of the British “first-past-the-post” electoral system, only 23 Alliance MPs were elected.”

You might detect a pattern there.

Anyway, I will let my dad speak for himself.  He has chosen his own pseudonym.


“In the 1966 General Election I failed to get elected to the House of Commons by a margin of considerably less than one thousand votes, running as a Labour candidate under the leadership of Harold Wilson. At the time I was sad about this; though those were the days of Wilson’s ‘White heat of scientific revolution’, I was the only working scientist who came even close to election in that Parliament.

About a year later, I received a letter out of the blue from the former Liberal candidate who had run against me and had gotten around 3,500 votes. He wrote that he thought that he and I were of a single mind about most things, and that he was sorry that by splitting the left-of-centre vote he had facilitated the election of the Conservative candidate.

On Election Day last week I voted tactically in Oxford West and Abingdon for the Liberal Democrat candidate, Dr Evan Harris, who had been a progressive Member of Parliament for our constituency since 1997 and is outstandingly supportive of the scientific community. Dr Harris was beaten by 176 votes after a recount, but there were 5,999 Labour votes in the constituency – 10.6 % of the turnout – and most of them, I feel sure, would have preferred Harris to the Conservative who was elected. Why did not more of them vote tactically, as I did? The answer must be that tribal loyalties run strong. That is fair enough; the result is not democracy by any sensible description, however.

In retrospect I am not sorry that I did not get elected in 1966: I am sure I have been a better scientist than I would ever have been a politician. For Dr Harris, though, and for many like him, the outcome is tragic and undemocratic. I was born in the latter days of the second Labour Government of Ramsay Macdonald – later reviled for leading a governing coalition in the national interest. I shall now probably die under a Tory Prime Minister. It saddens me that in the 80 years in between we have still not mastered the art of democratic electoral compromise that has served our German neighbours so well since 1949.

Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats had an historic opportunity early this week. They could have insisted on a free and binding vote in the new House of Commons on an Alternative Vote system for the next General Election as the price of their support for David Cameron’s government. The Liberal Democrat Party owed this opportunity to the country, and especially to their supporters, and Clegg certainly owed it personally to Evan Harris. There is, I believe, now a majority within the 2010 Parliament for this minimal first step in progressive change, as there was among the thinking electors who made up the left-of-centre majority vote on May 6th.

I am now sad that Mr Clegg has dissipated the opportunity. Though he did not actually renege (as Tony Blair did after the 1997 General Election) he has settled for a meaningless commitment to a referendum on electoral reform, with the precise question to be put not specified. It is a certainty that the Tories will fight furiously against this reform: time and again we have seen how ‘First Past the Post’ fosters their cause. It is the politicians, though, and not the populace, who must sort this matter out. Regrettably, most voters do not understand the subtleties of the system they use already,  so a referendum for change will almost certainly prove abortive.”


Oxford, 12th May 2010


PS  from Dr Aust: For those curious as to what the coalition parties actually agreed on electoral reform, here is the actual text:

“The parties will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies. Both parties will whip their Parliamentary Parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum.”

(Italics mine)


PPS An interesting game for conoisseurs of British political “third party” trivia is to spot the former SDP members in the current cabinet. Interestingly, they are by no means all to be found among the Lib Dems. As best I can tell, the list is as follows (Cabinet Ministers in bold):

Ex-SDP Tories:

Andrew Lansley (Sec State, Health), Greg Clark (Minister, Decentralisation), Chris Grayling (Minister at Dept of Work & Pensions), Stephen O’Brien (Minister at Dept for Int’l Development).

And ex-SDP Lib Dems:

Vince Cable (Sec State, Business), Chris Huhne (Sec State, Energy & Climate Change), (Lord) Tom McNally (Minister of State, Ministry of Justice) Paul Burstow (Minister at Dept of Health)