A modest proposal

There is broad political consensus on the remedies for many of Britain's ills. Derek Coombs, chairman of Prospect and a former MP, regrets that it is not reflected in parliament
January 20, 1996

Many people agree that some measure of constitutional change is needed in parliament, but the remedies suggested are often as tired as the problems they are intended to address. I want to propose one simple but significant change which would dramatically alter the way parliament is run, by strengthening and engaging the more open-minded middle ground MPs of all parties.

The proposal is straightforward and would not alter our present voting system in any way. The government of the day must represent the majority of its citizens and therefore no political party should be able to form a government unless it has 50 per cent or more of the popular vote. If the winning party cannot achieve that on its own, it would have to form a coalition with another party. As no party has achieved more than 50 per cent of the popular vote since the war, this would invariably mean a coalition, sometimes Labour/Liberal, sometimes Conservative/Liberal or even Labour/Conservative.

The majority of British voters support the middle ground and the composition of parliament should reflect their view. Over a period of time, issues would be judged not on what is good for the party/country, but what is good for the country/party. Our legislators could concentrate on the large and complex problems facing the UK-and the unpopular remedies they often require-with a broad base of parliamentary support.

A classic example is education. There are too few good schools and very many underperforming or simply bad schools, in both the state and private sectors. The Conservative party never seriously confronts the problems of state education and how it can be improved and the Labour party is equally negligent of private education. We have only to look at a country like South Korea, which 25 years ago had a much lower level of literacy than the UK, to see what can be achieved. Our vision for improvement is too insular and party political. We must study the best educational systems in the world and adopt a crash programme to raise our standards to the very highest level. If we fail in that, it is sure that our decline will continue.

Likewise we need a bipartisan approach to the rising cost of social security. All parties know that changes are essential, not only because the ?90 billion annual budget is rising out of all proportion to what we can afford, but also because there is increasing evidence that it encourages the growth of an underclass. People need to be encouraged to work, with the state providing support for those who are genuinely unable to do so.

The UK is not alone in facing this problem. But here the main parties are too interested in scoring points off one another; they often fail to do what they know should be done because of what they perceive to be the electoral consequences. We need a Royal Commission, in the manner of Beveridge, with terms of reference backed by all the main parties. These must include welfare costs which the country can afford (bearing in mind the burden of the above educational reform), a welfare delivery system which does not destroy work incentives, and a decent safety net for those in need. Alongside this the commission should examine the consequences of an ageing society and how to encourage people to save adequately for their old age with private pensions.

Many people will say that coalition government is weak government. But if you look at successive single party governments over the past 40 years we have not been well served. Apart from the Wilson and Thatcher "honeymoon" periods, public expectation has been disappointed. Our adversarial parliament, which empowers the small number of ideologues in the main parties, is one cause of this failure. By contrast, Germany's outstanding economic performance reflects the stability and consistency of policy that coalition government can provide.

So how does adopting a system of winning more than 50 per cent of the popular vote differ from proportional representation? Proportional representation does not guarantee that the candidate with the largest number of votes wins the seat, whereas my proposal would preserve the existing "first past the post" single member constituency, while ensuring coalition governments. We must also remember, as Sarah Hogg pointed out in the first issue of Prospect, that there is no serious likelihood of either main party adopting wholesale electoral reform in the near future.

How would the proposal work in practice? It would encourage parties to narrow their differences and try to establish a common agenda even before a general election. The first Queen's Speech of the new parliament would reflect this more bi-partisan approach. We would have less political noise and more attention to policy detail. It is surely wrong that so much legislation passes through the House of Commons without the majority of members giving it close scrutiny, either on the floor of the House or in the Standing Committees.

Our most talented citizens are no longer attracted into politics because of party political posturing. Obviously coalition government will create crises from time to time. But it is a means of focusing the country's political will. Above all, it will turn parliament into a constructive, problem-solving forum, rather than the object of popular derision it has become.