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A new politics at last?

If anything good is to come from this economic and MP expenses crisis then it needs to be more democracy argues Mary Southcott

In the 21st anniversary year of Charter 88, their book, Unlocking Democracy , celebrates the 20 year history of campaigning against our unwritten constitution. Most of its agenda should now be endorsed by anyone who claims to be progressive. Some moves to devolution, new voting systems and human rights of course have been implemented. Whoever coined the phrase 'no turning back', it applies here. Once Scotland got its parliament, the rest of our constitutional arrangements were meant to flow but somehow got stuck.  

Charter 88 brought together a diverse number of people, many still around and others who have joined the democracy bandwagon because of the recent crises. Suddenly the expectation on politics and politicians to change is mainstream. The vote has always been a symbol of our democracy so it is not surprising that having been kicked into the long grass after the Jenkins Report in 1998, electoral reform has sprung to the top of the political agenda. Longtime PR supporter, now Home Secretary, Alan Johnson breathed life back into the Jenkins Commission and its proposal of Alternative Vote plus (AV+) by suggesting that Labour fulfils its manifesto promise of holding a referendum at the same time as the General Election. It would not be binding but it would be a promise kept and a marker for a hung parliament or any incoming government.

AV+ would combine preference voting, 1, 2, 3 ... replacing X voting in single member constituencies. There would be a separate party vote which would determine the strength of the parties so those who did not make it in the single constituencies could command sufficient votes to have a top up MP. On a good day the Green Party would win through, as would Labour in Surrey and Conservative in Wales and Manchester.

This would break up the electoral deserts where voters of one main party have no election of two BNP MEPs by a specific form of PR. However the BNP built up its support in local government in areas that Labour assumed were safe and the other parties abandoned because they were not in contention. The BNP were aided and abetted by the policy of targeting narrow bands of the electorate who not only didn't live in these areas but did not share their policy needs. This abandoned those mainly white working or unemployed class to the simplistic arguments of the BNP. To compound this, the Party has most of its activists recruited from marginal and middle class constituencies where most of the work needed to be done to win general elections.

This all happened under and because of the current voting system. Any system that made votes count wherever they are cast would have tackled the BNP before it was elected. Their success at the Euro elections was because so many Labour voters stayed at home. It is sad that politicians needed this to happen to start to address the problem the voting system disguised. One time French MEP, Jean-Pierre Cot, used to say: "You don't cure the fever by breaking the thermometer". He was right. Parties learn in opposition and become distant in government partly because they assume they have the support which is a figment of the voting system. Governments who had to win arguments not just votes would be better for everyone.

As long as we have government and oppositions, oppositions will oppose rather than constructively engage to tackle the economy, environment or drugs. You can join the campaign, Vote for a Change , which is demanding a referendum by going to www.voteforachange.co.uk. You can make the arguments for reconnecting people and politics. This is the moment that whatever you do or say or choose, it will matter and your vote will count.