Electoral Reform: purple revolution or middle-class obsession?

Sunday 31 October, 9.45am until 10.30am, Courtyard Gallery Breakfast Banter

Throughout this year’s general election, the issue of electoral reform was to the fore. Even before voters went to the polls, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg spoke of it being a deal-breaker in any potential coalition, and afterwards the Take Back Parliament campaign took to the streets to demand ‘Fair votes now’. Their supporters have called for a ‘Purple Revolution’ to rival the post-Soviet Velvet and Orange varieties, and have cast themselves in the tradition of the Chartists and the Suffragettes in seeking to end the dominance of safe seats and two party politics.

Yet opponents of proposed changes – including many sitting MPs in both the Conservative and Labour parties – counter that there is no real democratic mandate in the electoral reform movement. It is pointed out that, even in the wake of ‘Cleggmania’, the Lib Dems lost seats at the election, while independents made less of an impression than in recent years. Meanwhile, the driving forces behind reform – groups like Power2010 and Greenpeace, and leading figures from the commentariat – tend to have few credentials in democratic institutions themselves. While ongoing scandals over ministers’ lobbying interests and expenses offer a stark reminder that all is not well with British democracy, the outrage over voters being denied the opportunity to cast their ballots late on election day was relatively low-key in comparison to the reform debate, implying that the calls are driven by something other than demands for unfettered suffrage.

Those advocating electoral reform have made much of the need to end ‘tribal’ voting habits, and of the benefits of coalition government. But does this call not reflect a distrust of both apparently irrational voters and strong government? Has the demand for electoral reform, once about the popular struggle of the masses demanding enfranchisement, been turned into a struggle against the people? Or should we accept that a democracy developed in the nineteenth century can no longer represent twenty first century Britain?

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Anthony Barnett
founder, openDemocracy; co-editor, OurKingdom

Jonathan Isaby
editor, ConservativeHome.com; co-author, Boris v Ken: how Boris Johnson won London

Mark Littlewood
director general, Institute of Economic Affairs

Bruno Waterfield
Brussels correspondent, The Times; co-author, No Means No

Dr Tim Black
editor, Spiked Review

Produced by
Dr Tim Black editor, Spiked Review
Recommended readings
A very unpopular movement for democratic reform

The current campaign to overhaul the electoral system is motored more by the needs of a disconnected elite than by popular demand.

Tim Black, spiked, 28 October 2010

How reform lost its allure

Politicians vote today on the AV referendum – where on earth did all the early enthusiasm go?

Peter Preston, Guardian, 6 September 2010

Electoral reform alone won’t resuscitate politics

In a sweaty Westminster room, Tim Black joined 60 Tories who talked more about how we vote than what we vote for.

Tim Black, spiked, 22 July 2010

Doing the sums on AV

Electoral reform won’t just change the way we choose MPs, but the way we do politics

Peter Kellner, Prospect, 22 July 2010

Political notes: the alternative vote

Cameron and Clegg promised a referendum on an electoral system neither actually likes. Such a vote is bound to strain their union

Anne McElvoy, Prospect, 22 June 2010

The Athenian Option: Radical Reform for the House of Lords

Before New Labour came to power and when even the prospect of reform of Britain s House of Lords was regarded with scepticism, Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty developed the idea of selecting part of a new upper house by lot: creating a jury or juries, that are representative of the population as a whole while being selected at random, to assess legislation

Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty, Imprint Academic, 1 August 2008

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