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RSA Lecture, London 1999

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: London

Before I relinquish the leadership of the Liberal Democrats, I have one great task. And that is to lead our Party through this spring’s elections - a set of elections which will probably be the most significant Britain has ever seen outside of a General Election.

The Scottish Parliament. The Welsh Assembly. Local government. The European Parliament.

These elections will be significant for three things.

First, they will be significant for themselves - of course they will. The Scottish Parliament, in particular, will be a body exercising real power. It should not be underestimated, and neither should its impact on the whole of British politics. For in bringing change to Scotland, it will force change on the rest of Britain.

Second, these elections will be significant because they will provide, as all elections do, a snapshot of the political landscape, at around the mid-term point of our present Parliament. Opinion polls are all very well, but, as anyone who remembers 1992 will know, there is no substitute for real votes in real ballot boxes.

So, there will be some big questions answered this spring.

How real is the threat of Scottish independence? Are the Government really as popular as the polls say they are? And are the Conservatives as irredeemably unpopular?

But perhaps the most important question of all will be this. What will be the impact of proportional representation after its first outing in British politics, in the elections for Scotland, Wales and Europe this year - and for London in the near future?


There can, therefore, be no time more apt than now to look at proportional representation - the effects it is likely to have on the bodies elected by it; the effect they will have on the chances of introducing PR for the remaining bastions of First Past the Post at Westminster and Town Hall.

First a warning. It is impossible to detach a voting system from the political environment in which it operates. Electoral reform is only one element, albeit a very important one, in the constitutional reform package that Liberal Democrats believe Britain needs. A package that also includes the devolution of power, Freedom of Information, the internal reform of both Houses of Parliament and legislation to entrench human rights in British law. This package has already begun to be implemented by the Government, in partnership with the Liberal Democrats, working together through the Joint Cabinet Committee.

My case in this lecture is two-fold. First, that proportional representation, far from being a subject suitable only for dry academic treatises on high dusty shelves, or an amusing game for the chattering classes, is, in reality, something which can make a real difference to the whole of our system of government and the daily lives of those who are governed by it. And second, to argue that this difference is not just desirable but an essential part of the process of equipping the UK with political structures fit for a 21st century society.


I take on this task with some trepidation. Not because it is a difficult case to make. It is not. But because proportional representation is regarded, wrongly as it happens, as a notoriously dense subject. For weeks before the Jenkins Commission produced their report on voting systems last October the Westminster set could be seen stocking up on strong coffee in the hope it would help them survive the 90 pages of Jenkins without succumbing to the temptations of sleep.

The surprising thing was, when the report came out they discovered they didn’t need it. It was actually a rattling good read. Really!

The whole Report, in fact, is marvellously full of great and entertaining images - what I call ‘Royisms’.

German unification, for instance, was described as the “awkward and ill-prepared dish of East Germany” being digested “by the great boa-constrictor of the West German economy.”

The endless choices offered by the Single Transferable Vote resemble, according to the Report, “a caricature of an over-zealous American breakfast waiter” insistent on offering more choices than people want.

And my personal favourite, the Labour Party, “after many thirsty years”, having “a cornucopia of luscious psephological fruit emptied over its head” at the last election.

The purpose of the Jenkins Commission was to address the fact that while there is, according to polls, majority support for a change in the voting system, there has not, up to now, been agreement among supporters of reform, as to which of the many varieties of proportional representation we should move to.

The Commission’s recommendation was for a system which, quite deliberately, and in my view wisely, preserved, at this first stage, the patchwork quilt of constituencies across the country, each represented by a single MP. But with two key differences from the current system. First, these constituency MPs would each be elected by a preferential voting system. In other words, rather than just placing a single ‘X’ you would vote ‘1’ for your first preference candidate, ‘2’ for your second preference, and so on, eliminating the need for tactical voting and allowing people to vote for who they really want - but to say, in effect: ‘if my favourite candidate does so badly they stand no chance of winning then give my vote to my second choice instead’.

The second key change was to reduce the number of these constituencies slightly and compensate by providing ‘top up’ MPs in each city or county. In other words rather than having 10 constituencies in Leicestershire you would have 8 constituencies and a further 2 MPs representing the whole county. These would be elected in a way which would mean the balance of party representation across the county would better reflect the balance of the electorate’s votes.

The system, an elegant amalgam of the voting systems known as the Alternative Vote, or AV, and the Additional Member System, has been christened ‘AV Plus’. It is the only system of PR now on the table for Westminster. And this is the proposal that will be put to the British people in a referendum as promised by the Government in their 1997 manifesto. Therefore, in terms of Westminster at least, this is the system I shall argue for and set out the likely consequences of, in the remainder of this lecture.

So, how would we see a difference under PR?


Well, the first difference is one which we are already beginning to see in Scotland and Wales. PR means parties have to campaign equally hard everywhere rather than in just a few marginal seats.

The extent to which political campaigning is now concentrated in just a few areas was highlighted by David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh in their definitive guide to the last General Election. In 1997, they said, there was “a greater degree of targeting on particular constituencies and particular voters than ever before. Conservative and Labour headquarters focused their efforts” - leaflets, money, campaign workers - “on almost identical lists of the 90-100 seats where the election would be decided.”

90-100 seats where the election would be decided? That leaves 550 seats where the election was not going to be decided. Shouldn’t somebody have told the people who live in them?

The biggest worry though, is the temptation for parties to target not just their campaigning efforts, but also their policies. The infamous Essex Man and Worcester Woman aren’t just tabloid creations, they have been political targets, because their votes are valuable to the parties in a way that those of Surrey Man and Glasgow Woman are never likely to be under the current system. Would Margaret Thatcher have been so relaxed about destroying Britain’s heavy industrial and mining industries, rather than nurturing them through a period of transition, if she had needed the votes of the North of England to win re-election?


There is another key difference that PR would bring about in election campaigning. Under the current First Past the Post system it is not necessary for an election candidate to appeal to a majority of their electors. A candidate opposed by well over half their electorate can still win if the votes of their opponents are evenly split. It is even possible for a candidate to win with just a quarter of the vote - as my colleague Russell Johnston proved in 1992. Thus we had the spectacle in 1997 of West Country Tories spending their time talking up their Labour opponents in the hope they would take enough Liberal Democrat votes to save their skin.

By introducing preferential voting, PR would end this. It would force candidates to broaden their appeal, rather than rely on electoral arithmetic, because, in order to win, they would need the support of a majority of their electors. It would allow voters to express their wishes fully and clearly, voting with both their hearts and their heads where now they are so often forced to choose between them.

To give an example, a Labour voter on the Isle of Wight could have the satisfaction of contributing to Tony Blair’s national vote total, and using his vote to help the Liberal Democrat candidate defeat the Tory, if he so chose. Lib Dems, Tories and supporters of smaller parties with the same dilemma would also be helped. They could vote with conviction for their party of choice, while still ensuring their vote was not wasted.


The fact that an increasing number of people feel their vote is being wasted under our current system is one of the main reasons fewer and fewer people are even bothering to vote.

No political party can be proud that fewer than one in three people voted at last year’s local council elections. Even at the last General Election the turnout was just 75% - the lowest since the War.

And what has study after study found to be one of the main factors determining how many people vote in a given constituency? Marginality. The more people think their vote may matter the more likely they are to use it.

One study estimated that if every seat had been marginal in 1997, three quarters of a million more people would probably have voted. And that’s the effect PR would have - to make most places marginal - if not at constituency level, then certainly for the ‘top up’ MPs.


Another way in which PR could reduce political apathy would be by increasing the diversity of candidates and the representativeness of Parliament, making it more relevant to and in tune with the people it represents.

Our Parliament, even with the present substantial influx of women, remains predominantly a White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and predominantly male affair, which nowhere near adequately reflects the multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-religious nature of a society where women are actually a majority. Where it has been introduced elsewhere, PR has helped to change this, and it could here, so that Westminster better reflects the nature of the nation it is supposed to represent.


The most fundamental representative function of any Parliament is, of course, to accurately reflect the way the electorate have cast their votes, and thus the balance of views within the country. But our current system even fails at this.

First Past the Post exaggerates the support of big parties and discounts supporters of small ones. It has been likened in one book to a hall of reflecting mirrors, making all those above average height look like giants, all those below it look like dwarfs, and everyone look ugly!

It provides not for majority government but for government of a minority, with untrammelled power.

And, incidentally, it does not always confer this power on the biggest minority. Those Labour MPs still high on the glory of 1997’s landslide would do well to remember the lessons of their other landslide victory, in 1945.

Labour won, in 1951, what remains their highest ever share of the vote - higher than ‘45, far higher than ‘97, and 230,000 votes above what the Tories got in the same election. But Labour lost. The Tories got 26 more seats, won a majority and stayed in power for 13 years - under First Past the Post.

And now the pendulum has swung the other way. Today Britain’s psephological make-up has inverted itself, now providing Labour, not the Conservatives, with a built-in bias. Even if the Conservatives get the same share of the vote in the next Election as Labour they will end up with 76 fewer seats.

You see, the First Past the Post system cannot be relied upon to produce a result that reflects the wishes of voters.

By making all votes count, rather than just those in marginals, PR would change this. It would provide one party with majority Government only where it enjoyed majority support, or where that party had an overwhelming lead over its opponents. Thus while the Jenkins system would have given Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher majorities it would not have given John Major one in 1992. Nor would it have given either Blair or Thatcher the artificially huge majorities that First Past the Post did.


PR would also ensure a strong opposition - something particularly relevant to local government. It is ridiculous that in the London Borough of Newham, for example, every seat is held by Labour, even though they won only a little over half of the votes at the last local elections. Huge majorities and non-existent or tiny oppositions cause complacency and undermine accountability, sometimes even leading to corruption of the kind that councillors have been charged with in Doncaster. When the allegations first came to light Labour had a majority of 53 on Doncaster Council and the combined opposition ranks were just 5.

By ending the scandal of the ‘one party state’ in local government, proportional representation would strike a blow for accountability and good government. Even the Home Secretary, who is, I think it is fair to say, no great fan of PR for Westminster, may be coming round to see that, if his remarks on a recent ‘On the Record’ are to be believed. If so he is right. The Prime Minister says he wants to clean up local government. Good. But this will be far better done by the voters than by any number of hit squads and centralised disinfection schemes from Westminster. And PR is the best way to give the voters the tools to do the job.

PR would also eliminate the situation where a party gets penalised because its support is spread across a wide area rather than concentrated in one place. A good example of this was seen at the 1992 General Election when the Scottish Nationalists got six times as many votes as the Welsh Nationalists, but won fewer seats because the Welsh Nationalists targeted their efforts more efficiently. Or the Tories in Scotland, who got 17% and no MPs, while the Liberal Democrats got 13% and 10 seats!


The benefits conferred by our present First Past the Post system on political parties who can concentrate their vote is one of the reasons why the political map always looks so stark. Labour north and Tory south. Labour towns and Tory countryside. It divides the nation and polarises opinions. It perpetuates the sterility of class-based political battles.

The Conservatives are now almost entirely a party of rural England. No seats in Scotland. No seats in Wales. No seats in Sheffield, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle - almost all of our great cities are now Tory-free zones.

I do not weep for that. But I do recognise that it is not just unfair, it is also unhealthy for our democracy

It’s not, after all, for lack of votes. It’s for lack of votes in the right places. 300,000 people voted Tory in Wales - and elected nobody. 500,000 people voted Tory in Scotland - and elected nobody. But only 160,000 people voted Tory in Dorset - and elected all eight of the county’s MPs.

And the geographical balance of a party’s MPs inevitably has a huge impact on the focus of the party. Parties unrepresented in particular areas can simply lose touch with those areas and the issues that matter to them. Thus a Labour Party virtually MP-less in the south of England during the 1980s so lost touch with southern voters that they ruled themselves out of office for 18 years. And thus a Conservative Party virtually MP-less in Scotland and Wales in the last Parliament arrogantly dismissed legitimate demands from those nations for the devolution of power - and felt able to use them as the guinea-pigs for doomed schemes like the poll tax because there was no electoral risk.

This polarisation is artificial. It is damaging. And it is largely caused by the voting system. PR would remove this distortion. It would provide all the political parties with groups of MPs that reflected far more closely not only the size of their support in the country, but also its geographical balance. And that, surely, can only be a good thing.


So PR would improve the balance both between, and within, the political parties. But what would its effect be on the party system itself?

The chance of smaller parties making it into Parliament would be greater under PR, although the nature of the Jenkins system means it would not be that much greater.

No party not already represented in Parliament would have come even close to winning MPs at the last General Election had the Jenkins system been in operation. Of course this was partly a consequence of the system. When you know a party stands no chance of winning you are less inclined to vote for it, and the party itself is less inclined to put up candidates. But even so, it is difficult to imagine any of the current minority parties - the Greens, the UK Independence Party, the British National Party - coming near to gaining representation in Parliament, short of the kind of surge in support the Greens had in the exceptional circumstances of 1989. Indeed in the case of an extremist party like the BNP, PR’s preferential voting would be likely to make it far harder for them to win election.

So PR would be unlikely to mean a host of extreme and fringe parties suddenly ending up in Parliament. Nevertheless, I believe it could provide the spur for the formation of perhaps two new parties from within the existing political spectrum, and in so doing achieve a major realignment of British politics.


Let me explain what I mean.

Britain is now embarked upon what I have called a historic decade of reform and modernisation - and not just of the constitution. A period, the like of which comes along to us rarely more than twice each century. In this project the Liberal Democrats and Labour are natural partners. And I hope that we will continue to be so - for there is much work to be done together.

I believe, though, that by the time we come out of this decade it may not be only our political structures that have been reshaped. The outlines of our political parties may have been transformed too.

Around 150 years ago the repeal of the Corn Laws triggered a split in the Conservative Party that nearly drove them out of existence. In the early years of this century splits between Lloyd George and Asquith, and the nascent Labour Party, caused a collapse in the Liberal Party that has left it out of power ever since. Events that transcended party loyalties, left former colleagues as enemies and transformed the political landscape. Now I believe something similar is happening again.


The splits in the Conservative Party over Europe are deep and probably unbridgeable. The referendum on the Single Currency should, and still may, happen before the next election. But if it does not then it will happen very soon after. And when it does come it will, I believe, more even than in 1975, be a seismic event which will make irrevocable the process of reshaping our politics - a process which is already under way.

The recent departure of two Conservative MEPs, though, in my view, premature, is nevertheless deeply significant.

But although Europe is the flashpoint, the divisions in the Conservative Party now reach far beyond this single issue. More than at any other point this century, the Conservative Party is now two parties - two parties at war with one another - and who are held together not by common beliefs, but only by electoral expediency.

It is a loveless marriage, held together by the straitjacket of First Past the Post. But slowly, as the straitjacket is loosened, the marriage is unravelling. There has already been talk about a separate team of pro-European Conservative candidates for the Euro-elections, something that would never have been mentioned if we had been staying with First Past the Post. The adoption of proportional representation for Westminster would make it likelier than not that the breach in the Conservative Party would become formal and final, and the battle that is now being fought inside the Conservative Party would be fought where it really should be - in the open, between two separate parties, with the electorate the judge and jury.


The potential of PR to jemmy open cracks in our party monoliths is not limited to the Conservative Party. The Labour Party too, though it hides it better, is irrevocably split. Not over Europe, this time, but over socialism. One part of the Labour Party believes in it. One part does not. And in the middle a few tortured souls run around desperately trying to redefine it to cover the latest development.

There are today not three, but five political parties in British politics. Two Conservative Parties. And two Labour Parties too. And Old Labour are just as far from influence and power as the Conservatives.

In the Labour Party too there are hints and signs of what may be to come. The effective deselection of Old Labour MEPs, which New Labour have opportunistically used this year’s change in voting system as an excuse for, but which would probably have happened anyway. The refusal to approve Dennis Canavan for the Scottish elections, for little more than being an old-style socialist. The setting up of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party.

The Labour Party is, at its heart, as fundamentally, if less visibly, split as the Conservatives. And, just like the Conservatives the only thing holding the left wing in the Party is electoral expediency. Under our current system a breakaway of the left is not impossible, and they could well be pushed into it, for Tony Blair would not miss them. But it could come about only from total desperation, for it would be doomed from the start.

Yet under PR there would be hope. 10% of the vote would not be beyond their reach in some parts of the country and a new party of socialists, credibly led, could reasonably hope to win a small group in Parliament, although I wouldn’t personally recommend it to the voters. That would be the honest way for the two sides of the Labour Party to resolve their differences. To argue them before the electorate rather than engage in committee room conflict and smoke signal civil war. New Labour would be liberated and the left would have a voice again. No more internal appeasement, no more loveless marriages.

I have always believed that the fundamental reshaping of British politics which we in my Party have looked for as far back as Jo Grimond, needed an event and a context to make it happen. The event was a referendum on the Euro and the context was one on PR. Both now draw imminently closer - and I don’t think it matters much which comes first. I hope to play a part in both.


Now, having touched on Labour and the Tories, I’d better say a word about the Lib Dems.

There is a misconception among some commentators, and perhaps even some high in the Labour Party, about the long-term aims of our co-operation with Labour. They misunderstand what the ‘political realignment’ is that we are seeking. They assume that the aim is to create one single huge, hegemonic party of the centre left, reducing choice for electors. Let me state clearly, this is not my vision, and it never has been.

In fact my aim is quite the opposite. I am not in the business of predicting the overall state of British politics in 10 or 15 years time. But my aim is to help create a political environment where people can work together without having to be in the same party. And where voters at election time can choose not just between two uncomfortable coalitions but between each major strand of current political thought.

Can it really be right that when a voter goes to the polls they can make no distinction between whether they are supporting the Labour Party of Tony Blair or the Labour Party of Tony Benn? Or whether they are voting for the Tory Party of Michael Howard or the Tory Party of Michael Heseltine?

Maybe in a time before mass media people’s ability to choose between their politicians was limited to a simple choice of ‘A’ or ‘B’. But surely now we have gone beyond that?

Are we really saying that electors who can select daily from 80 different television stations, who can fill out multiple selections for the National Lottery and triple perms in the pools, who are used to choices in their supermarkets which would have been considered fabulous only a few years ago, will be bamboozled by a voting system which goes beyond a single cross in a box?

It is time to recognise that most people’s political views go beyond a simple left and right duopoly. Politics should not be reduced to Mr Peter Snow’s swingometer. The choice we offer the electorate should not be simply ‘this lot’ or ‘the other lot’, but a choice between all the major political creeds in Britain today - Thatcherism, Clarkeism, Blairism, Socialism, Liberal Democracy. And the opportunity, through a preferential voting system, to indicate which of these approaches they would like to see fused together in government if no party wins an overall majority.

PR would give that power to voters. It would extend the choices available to them. It would increase the diversity of views represented on the ballot paper. It would force politicians to listen to them more. And it would make more direct the relationship between how people vote, and who they elect.

It would change the way political parties relate to one another too.

PR is the means by which parties, large and small, can have sensible and constructive relationships with other parties without being destroyed in the process. It would create a new dynamic, enabling small independent parties to thrive, rather than drawing them into catch-all coalitions. Pluralism and diversity would be entrenched into our politics.


I happen to think that is good for Britain. But it may also be necessary for Britain. For I believe that we are now going through a kind of paradigm shift which will force us to change the very way we think, act and govern ourselves.

As we move into a new century, the greatest issue which confronts us is the increasing globalisation of power.

Power is being exercised, increasingly, not on a national, but on a global scale. The power of the global players is already diminishing the power of the players on the smaller stage of the nation state - they are already treating national politics and national politicians as their playthings - and could soon marginalise the politics of the nation state.

I believe that, sooner or later - and it ought to be sooner - we are going to have to grasp the nettle and impose limits on the so far unfettered power of the global players; that we are going to have to, as the 19th Century reformers did before us, match power with the institutions to control it.

But the only way to do this is to start to think inter-, or at least intra-, nationally - to pool sovereignty.

Either way the nature of our politics will have to change.

And if we want to see how, look at what the firms and enterprises are already doing: trading, competing and succeeding in the global market place, where Britain has to succeed.

What have they done?

They have devolved power to autonomous centres, which politicians, including senior Labour ones, seem so reluctant to do.

They have stripped down the old vertical hierarchies of the 19th Century, which Westminster so lovingly preserves.

They value the opinions and skills of their people which politicians still only play lip services to.

Above all, they recognise that success no longer comes from confrontation, but from engagement, shared responsibilities, teamwork and partnership - something our traditional politics completely fails to comprehend. Look at even the very shape of the Commons chamber and you will see the rigidities of two party oppositionism institutionalised.

Success for Britain can only come if the culture and structure of our politics matches that of modern successful institutions making their way, where we must, in an increasingly globalised world.

We, too, must be part of the paradigm shift. And PR, with the value it puts on the powerful citizen, the context it creates for partnership instead of confrontation and the value it places on consensus rather than pitched battle, is one key ingredient in ensuring that we are.

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