Who woulda thunk that a government could wilfully ignore a petition actually – well, mostly virtually — signed by half a million people?
Probably most of us, to be fair. Since the age of the Internet most politicos have learnt the dangers of slacktivism, in which half-arsed social justice warriors share pictures, sign petitions and, er, post blogs to cyberspace which have little effect on the world outside their bedrooms.
Yet even the cynics among us will have failed to predict the contortions of one John Penrose, an obscure cabinet minister who is supposed to handle constitutional reform, according to the bracketed part of his job title. On receipt of the petition signed by 477,000 (including your blogger) that demanded seats more closely match votes, the MP for Weston-super-Mare fell back on an old Tory hatchet job: the alternative vote referendum from 2011
Writing to petition organiser Unlock Democracy, the minister for constitutional obstruction said: “The result [of the alternative vote referendum] was a fairly resounding rejection of the idea, with 67% voting against. As you’ll appreciate, it would be pretty difficult to argue the democratic verdict in a referendum and go ahead anyway!”
Those with political memories longer than Penrose’s will remember the Tories pulling out all the stops to defeat the referendum four years ago, the poll itself only delivered as a sop to the Liberal Democrats, who have been campaigning for a more democratic way of electing the Commons for decades.
But the key sleight-of-hand from the minister is his equation of the alternative vote, which requires an office holder to have an absolute majority within their constituency as opposed to merely the most votes, with proportional representation, which as Unlock Democracy points out, has never been offered to the British voter.
Penrose will also know that the appetite for reform has rather changed since the dismal alternative vote poll, in part because of the rising fortunes of Ukip and the Greens, as well as the skewed general election result in Scotland, which saw the Nationalists take almost all the seats despite netting only half of the Scottish vote.
Source: Electoral Reform Society
Penrose’s letter also comes as the old rightwing argument that first-past-the-post delivers strong governments is about to be refuted by his own party, as the Tories ready themselves to tear their slender majority apart through bickering on Europe, in a charming re-run of John Major’s premiership during the 90s.
Of course, the Tories’ objection to a proportional voting system is in no way linked to the fact the status quo suits them rather well – as indeed it does Labour, who might well have been usurped as the main leftwing party by the Liberals during the 80s under a proportional system.
Header Image – Polling station sign near Hampstead Heath, May 2015, by Bondegezou