The Telegraph MAY 23, 2009 - by Iain Martin


This week various authors, musical types and professional campaigners will launch Vote For A Change. They have observed the mess that British politics is in and they think they have come up with the answer: namely PR, or proportional representation.

But it isn't the answer to questions raised by the events of the last few weeks. In fact, it isn't a useful answer to anything very much.

The oddest thing about this new campaign is that it is being launched in the wake of a scandal which in passing demonstrates why PR is such a bad idea.

The MPs' expenses scandal re-makes the case for first past the post. The clean-up will be easier because voters can vote out their MP if they do not like what they have been up to.

We are furious with many of our Members of Parliament, and local campaigns will mean that a good number of them are removed either ahead of the election or on polling day. If your MP has been abusing his expenses you can go and register a vote for his opponent, without the miscreant being shielded by being part of a party list or slate. If enough of their constituents want him or her out they can do it cleanly and quite simply.

In contrast, PR breaks the direct link, or at least weakens it considerably, between the voter and the elected representative.

Ah, but it means all votes count, say campaigners and we get a government a majority voted for. Nonsense: votes under PR count for less because the real action takes place in and amongst the political parties.

PR empowers the party machine - first, in the selection of candidates where faceless committees or groups of activists spread across various constituencies rank candidates and decide who gets in. First past the post is not perfect, but at least a group of party members in a specific constituency choose a candidate they think best placed to represent their locale. The voters can then agree or disagree (in a marginal the choice of candidate can matter a great deal).

But it is after voters have voted that PR really empowers the parties most. They wheel and deal and construct a government that suits them - meaning that in the end the voters usually get a government that nobody actually voted for. It is often a stitch-up by a political class against the voters, all dressed up in the language of fairness.

We think our politicians are remote now? Try PR and we'll find out it can be even worse.

I have refrained, you will note, from being rude about some of the names on the Vote For A Change letter to the Observer.

But why are we supposed to listen to Brian Eno and Damon Albarn of Blur? If you want some ambient production in the manner of Bowie in Berlin or the dreaded U2 for your next album, then Eno's your man. Maybe you want cod-cockney lyrics, African tunes or a band created entirely out of cartoon characters? If so, call Albarn, immediately.

But for serious alterations to the British constitution - developed over centuries of difficult evolution - and a new voting system? Then no... I'm not seeing what particular expertise either brings to the party.

Of course change is required in the shape of a healthy dose of reform but it doesn't appear to have dawned on those advocating the most radical measures that the worst of these abuses really took hold after one of the most sustained periods of modernisation in the Commons' recent history. Is there a link? Yes. New Labour's "professionalisation" of politics - cutting office hours at Westminster for example - made many MPs start to think in terms of entitlement. Many grew to think the perks were their's of right. Old-fashioned notions of service too often got lost.

PR is part of the same process. It helps "professionalise" politics, helping to make it a job and thus more likely to be carried out in the wrong spirit.

With modernisation having contributed to the current mess, more of it cannot be the answer.