8 May 2010

How many Labour MSPs supported Westminster PR?

Zero. A big, fat, chubby zero. Do you remember this parliamentary motion (S3M-6215), in the name of Robin Harper MSP, debated in Holyrood in the dim and distant pre-election past - 29th April 2010?

"That the Parliament believes that the current UK general election must be the last to use the discredited first-past-the-post electoral system and that the single transferable vote is the best way to ensure that the public receive the democratic representation that they deserve in future."

Unfortunately for those Labourites keen to demonstrate their new-found enthusiasm for proportional representation, Holyrood's Official Record does. And wouldn't you know - not a single Labour MSP supported the motion. Every man jack of them opposed it. Can they all be mustard-keen supporters of the additional member system used for Holyrood, do you suppose, quibbling over the detail of a single transferable voting system and the word best? Tom Harris, freshly dry-cleaned MP-elect for Glasgow South, argues that:

... neither Gordon Brown nor anyone else in the Labour Party has the authority or the mandate to offer anything other than what was in Labour’s election manifesto – namely a referendum on whether we should adopt the alternative vote (AV).

Yet the UK Labour Party recently tweeted "We need 100,000 people to retweet if you want Proportional Representation". Of course, that is not the same as saying we want proportional representation, but the gist is pretty clear. Interesting but confusing, then, to read Labour's (ultimately rejected) amendment to Robin Harper's motion in Holyrood just over a week ago...

S3M-6215.2 Paul Martin: Democratic Reform—As an amendment to motion (S3M-6215) in the name of Robin Harper, leave out from "the current" to end and insert "there is no perfect electoral system, with each having advantages, disadvantages and the potential to produce anomalous outcomes; acknowledges the value of the constituency link in promoting and preserving accountability and the service of elected representatives; believes that democratic reform should encompass far greater change than simply potential changes to the system of election, and welcomes the significant progress in this regard, including devolution in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, the ending of hereditary peerages in the House of Lords and the enactment of the Human Rights and Freedom of Information Acts."

Non-committal. But how about these choice dioramas from the Holyrood debate? Here Labour's substantive attitude became rather clearer, as did their support for the unfair system of first past the post elections. According to them, it is impossible even to talk about these issues in good faith, the arguments in favour of proportionality rarely being addressed in the red benches' contributions. Rather, Labour members spent most of their time suggesting that anyone with an interest in the introduction of proportional voting to Westminster's representative democracy was doing so out of venal, self-interested reasons. I quote...

Robin Harper (Lothians) (Green):The Scottish Greens have brought this debate to ensure that the Scottish Parliament speaks proudly and positively on the issue. We want to give the Scottish Parliament a chance to make a clear stand against the long-discredited system of first past the post and in favour of a fairer system of voting for the Scottish people in the Westminster elections. More than that, we want to tell people throughout the United Kingdom that PR is already working, and working well, here in Scotland.

George Foulkes (Lothians) (Lab): Rubbish!

Or how about this...

Paul Martin (Glasgow Springburn) (Lab): ...In the amendment in my name, we state clearly our position, which is that we should continue to maintain the constituency link. There are arguments for and against us in that respect, and the first-past-the-post system has many challenges, but we cannot move away from the fact that it has successfully provided an opportunity for communities to elect and deselect representatives on many occasions, sometimes to the detriment of members of this chamber.

All right. I'll admit that that one isn't fatal. At this stage, the Labour representatives embarked on a series of amusingly misguided testaments to the virtues of first-past the-post. Deliciously ironically, stability was their shibboleth. Enter First Baron Foulkes of Cumnock...

George Foulkes (Lothians) (Lab):  I am now in favour of a 100 per cent elected second chamber at Westminster, on the clear understanding that the second chamber be kept as a revising legislature. On that basis, the second chamber could be elected under proportional representation. There could be a very good argument for that, and the single transferable vote could even be used with, ideally, a third of the membership changing at every election. The Lords would be the revising legislature, but the House of Commons would provide the Government, which needs to be stable. As Murdo Fraser rightly said, during most normal elections, the first-past-the-post system provides that stability. The first chamber would provide the Government and the second chamber would be the legislative chamber.

As ever with M'Lord Shambling Gurn, up popped the ad hominems again..

George Foulkes: Are [the Liberal Democrats'] arguments in favour of STV just pure benevolence? Are they doing it out of the goodness of their hearts? Of course not. That is naked political interest. As for my good friend Robin Harper, whom I have known for decades, it is manifest rubbish for him to say that the system of election to this Parliament is great. We had a situation in which some man called Tymkewycz—no one knew who he was—got elected as an MSP for the SNP but then gave it up for some reason; Shirley-Anne Somerville, who was fifth on the list and had been rejected by the people of central Edinburgh then suddenly arrived as an MSP without any election whatsoever. That is not democracy. We have the craziest system for election to the Scottish Parliament, and if anyone thinks of adopting it, they are completely insane.

The ribbiting Michael McMahon had this to say. Not looking good for PR here either...

Michael McMahon (Hamilton North and Bellshill) (Lab): To me, that is a matter of principle, and there is much about the outcome of PR systems that is flawed. For example, we have never been told what shady deal was done behind closed doors to get Patrick Harvie his convenership of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee. However, every now and again we get indications of the outcome, and this debate might well be one of them.

Or Pauline McNeill. Will she now retract? Has her mind vaulted and flopped suddenly, as seductive pieces by Labour press managers seem to imply, become the only hope for electoral reform?

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow Kelvin) (Lab): Reform of the voting system for Westminster is not a key issue for ordinary people who are considering their choice of party in the forthcoming election. I cannot confess to experiencing the withdrawal symptoms that Tricia Marwick mentioned. I have been out on the doorsteps and the subject has not been mentioned once ... Labour has supported and benefited from the first-past-the-post system, but we gave up that vested interest when we took part in the Scottish Constitutional Convention and supported a proportional system for the Scottish Parliament. That system has been reviewed by the Arbuthnott commission, which supported the continuation of the additional member system and rejected the use of STV for the Scottish Parliament. There is a lot to be said for the system that we have.

And then, in happy testament to the certainties of first past the post, Ms McNeill claimed that...

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow Kelvin) (Lab): The first-past-the-post system has provided stable government for the UK, people understand it, and I do not see any real demand to change it. In its 2005 manifesto, Labour said that it has always said that it is prepared to consider change by way of a referendum. We support the first-past-the-post system and say that there must be consensus on any change. There are principles that we must stand on, and any change must be made only if it is supported in a referendum.

Not that I'm opposed to converts, you understand.  It is all the better if you're able to convince your opponents of the virtues of your argument, despite their own stubborn resistance and over their once unyielding desire to cling to the flotsam of unfair procedures. In particular, with wholesale Labour support, there would be a majority in the new parliament for reform, whatever a putative Conservative government thinks. I'll start holding my breath now, shall I?


  1. I feel pretty confident in stating that Paul Martin didn't craft the phrase 'anomalous outcomes'.

  2. The @UKLabourParty and @uklabour accounts are not the same. The latter is the only official one.

  3. I'm forced to concur with your assessment Mr MacLachlan. No doubt the learned Mr Martin has people to draft his anomalous outcomes for him!

  4. Thanks for your clarification, Baxter Tocher. I'm sure anyone reading your comment will bear in mind that Labour's Central Command isn't putting out frankly pro-PR statements just yet. That said, I don't think it changes the substance of the matter significantly. It is clear that leading parts of the Labour Party - and associated party rabble - are touting their availability for some sort of deal on proportional representation, albeit softly, suggestively, seductively.

    Shallow and opportunistic it may be. If a majority could be dragooned together, however, I'd very much support it.