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When Boris wanted electoral reform

Michael Crick | 17:21 UK time, Friday, 15 April 2011

In recent weeks Boris Johnson has joined the No forces in trying the thwart the Liberal Democrats in the AV Referendum.

But the journalist Sonia Purnell, who is writing a biography of the Mayor of London - called "Just Boris" - tells me that in his days as an Oxford student in the 1980s, Mr Johnson was a big supporter of electoral reform.

In November 1985, while running for president of the Oxford Union, Mr Johnson spoke in favour of the motion: "This house has had enough of two party politics" he told Union members:

"There are two reasons why we should vote for a vote that counts...There is an overwhelming case for some type of electoral reform, some form of proportional representation.

"What sort of democracy is it where one party can get only 2% less of the vote than another party and end up with 100 fewer seats in the House of Commons?...

"People will point to places like Italy. For them, a change of government is like a minor reshuffle and it works. They have a standard of living higher than ours...

"[First past the post] causes a crude polarity, a Manichean dichotomy and is dividing the nation. The two old big parties are retreating into their heartlands and currying favour by adopting rigid politics...

"The ruthlessness of the current electoral system is forcing out views and opinions which we may not take seriously until it is too late...This motion is no more than a statement of fact - we have had enough of two party politics. The country has shown it in general elections, local elections and by-elections."

"The finale met rapturous applause," Sonia Purnell writes.

Mr Johnson was no doubt currying favour with the large number of SDP supporters in the Union. And his pro-PR speech helped get him elected.

"It was his SDP-ish stance that meant he got the presidency at the second attempt," Sonia Purnell tells me.

Roll on 25 years, and Mr Johnson wrote in his Daily Telegraph column seven weeks ago: "First-past-the-post has served this country well, and served dozens of other countries well."


  • Comment number 1.

    For some additional fun from Boris Johnson's early years, read your copy of the BBC's 'Constituency Guide' from the 1997 election (the internal BBC Political Research Unit one, not the published one), turn to page 4-149, and read of his first involvement in London local government at the very start of the 'Political Career' section.

  • Comment number 2.

    'But the journalist Sonia Purnell... tells me that in his days'

    As, for once, source identified, no reason to doubt the facts, so merely the timing is impeccable.

    One looks forward to future exposes during key periods of the slight disconnects between youthful views and now, across the whole political infirmament.

  • Comment number 3.

    Whether or not you want electoral reform depends on what you think is possible with an alternative system.
    Boris may want to keep our single member constituencies, and simple voting and counting, If so he may think FPTP is the only alternative. He may feel the complexity and opacity of STV is synonymous with PR.
    Boris can have PR with our existing single member constituencies, together with simple voting and counting if we adopt Direct Party and Representative Voting.

    But the stand out feature of DPR Voting is that every voter makes a difference to the result. This, along with the end of safe seats, could do a lot to engage the electorate and boost voter turnout.

    Google 'DPR Voting'

  • Comment number 4.


    No one has yet shown me why governance ALONE has to be riddled with gaming, confrontation, negativity, chicanery - what, in a machine, would be called LOST MOTION - when all other enterprises STRIVE TO ERADICATE!


  • Comment number 5.

    Ironic that as we prepare to vote on a change to the voting system, while governed by a Coalition (in name at least) we are closer to 2-party politics than we've been in a long while.

    Also ironic up here in Scotland is that despite (proper?) PR for 12 years, 2 of the parties will end up with the vast bulk of the seats after May's election (Labour and SNP). The influence of the other parties is questionable despite all thir protestations to the contrary.

  • Comment number 6.

    they are well into perversity, those parliamentarians...

  • Comment number 7.


    It is a mark of Westminster that it just doesn't see that the CRASS in democracy DEFINES THEM, while the MOCK is our unappealing and unappealable lot.

    To them it is a game; to us, and Johnnie Foreigner, it is life and death.

    God save the Dave.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    YOUGOV are quoting a Plymouth Uni projection that on their poll published today for the May local elections that the Tories will lose 1,000 council seats and the LibDems 800, that Labour will win an outright major in the Welsh Assembly and that the LibDem vote looks like collapsing completely for the Scottish Parliament, although the PR system north of the border will mean they will still probably have an MSP or two.

    Also the poll on AV shows the YES campaign faltering and the NO vote overtaking it.

    If this poll is anywhere near correct, this will leave the LibDems virtually annihilated from control of councils having elections and a spent force in the Nations.

    With the loss of the AV vote, Nick Clegg will have undone all the progress the LibDems have made since the low point of Jeremy Thorpe, whilst a whole swathe of True Blue councils will be won by Labour.

    The only hope then for the Coalition is that the economy comes good before the General Election, because the massive increase in Labour councillors and control of councils will give Miliband a much bigger foundation to build on, whilst the traditional powerbase of the LibDems in local government will have gone.

    Also the "localism" Bill will hand Labour the flexibility in local government that it didn't have in the 1980s when rate capping and central control was a brake on their ability to defy the government - "shot in foot" time, I'd say...

    The day after the decimation of LibDems in local elections and the probable lost AV vote, Clegg is going to be a pariah in what is left of his own Party and I cannot see him surviving much longer - if he is ditched, then the Coalition is in real danger and it will be down the tight arithmetic of the House of Commons whether Cameron can survive a confidence vote.

    Miliband is still free to formulate policy in the post-Brown era, has few hostages to fortune and a following wind to take on the vested interests in the City, with much of the dirty work in terms of spending cuts out of the way.

    Clegg must be either incredibly naive, incredibly stupid or incredibly arrogant - or all three. In a single year he will have smashed the LibDems representation in the country, ended the debate about electoral reform for a generation and handed Labour control of the country on a plate, with all the mud sticking to the Coalition for the spending cuts and madcap ideas about NHS reform, betrayal on student fees and getting the UK embroiled in yet another middle eastern war.

    The electorate are

  • Comment number 10.


    When you consider the record of Westminster over decades, it follows that the 'right stuff' for party politics is not bright stuff. And leaders/Prime Ministers, being quintessential distillate, are the dumbest of all.

    When you consider the bizarre character that occasionally peeps from behind the blagger-mask of all our PMs, the case is made.


  • Comment number 11.

    One might suppose that the Italian way of life and taxation is rather more 'relaxed' than life and taxes in the UK, Mr Johnson?

    As Mayor of London, Boris, it's on the record that you earn more than the Prime Minister, plus you claim cab fares on your tax payer expenses for several private dental treatments in order to meet your Mayoral commitments too.

    To remain on topic, you may be interested to know that most unions are against AV too. My personal view is that PR should have been the option. However, as the voting system for MPs stands now, AV is a step forward in more democratic election law that has the ability to evolve and improve genuine representation in the UK.

  • Comment number 12.


    To me, AV has always felt like a way to fill the 'referendum hole'. Dave is sure he can see it off. Nick is sure he can trumpet L/D influence. And the voters have a vague feeling it is all happening again. (Lisbon?)

    Parties will still pre-select candidates for being 'party-games-ready'. Even open-primary-product, Sarah Wollaston, has stayed put, after the disgraceful PPS revelation. It is self evident that those who a) want to be MPs, and b) are 'the right stuff', are PRECISELY the sort of individuals who emerge as the shysters and charlatans who have governed (but not managed) this benighted country for decades.

    In passing: I note Nick says AV will exclude extremist parties. That does not feel democratic; what is more, 'radical' is a kind of extreme. I wonder if Nick can grasp such a concept?

  • Comment number 13.

    Arguing about how to elect those who claim to represent us.
    This isn't democracy.
    Democracy is direct democracy.

  • Comment number 14.

    This morning 'Dave' Cameron gave a rousing speech on the virtues of manifestos and how AV would render them null and void! You could point to the current coalition and say 'case proven', but pause and consider the history of these documents. They have only ever been a wishy washy to do list, and even used as a club to beat sections of society with, witness 'New' Labour's vedetta against pensioners whom they blamed for their 1992 elaction defeat. In that election years' Labour manifesto was a pledge to 'restore the earnings link', and after that defeat Labour said that 'pensioners said they didn't want it because they voted against it'! That was their excuse for not implementing it until the dying days of Gordon Brown's government. An example of the uses a manifesto pledge gets put to. These documents are bland and ambiguous by design, so when things don't happen it's because that wasn't what was really meant. An argument in defence of the indefensible. Now, his other point about FPTP being the protector of the people against a 'political elite'. Such as the bankers, PFI consultants, government IT consultants, political party bankrollers, tax loophole specialists and all the rest who do extraordinarily well out whoever is in power at the expense of the rest of us. I don't see any changes there. And, not mentioned today but pretty obvious over the weekend, Rupert Murdoch wants a 'No' vote. Perhaps he still wants his daily to be able to say: 'It's the Sun wot(sic) won it'.

  • Comment number 15.

    What AV campaigners are overlooking is that just changing the system does not mean it will change voting behaviour. What will happen if over 50% of voters use just one preference (split amongst a numer of candidates) which may happen?

    Michael Cricks example of 100 votes showed the 'winner' with only 45%, which as I understand would not be the case, still 5% short of the '50% requirement of all valid votes cast' according to the Electoral Reform Society.

  • Comment number 16.

    RW49 - new labour vendetta against pensioners?

    What, the intro of pension credits to lift those on just basic state pension (barely) above the poverty line?

    The cold weather fuel payments?

    Free TV licences?

    Massive spending on NHS which mainly benefits the elderly?

    Free personal care in Scotland and Wales (introduced by Labour lead administrations).

    Your point on manifestos in general may be well made - your example to support it was subbish.

  • Comment number 17.

    Not sure what I meant by 'subbish' in the last post.

    Perhaps its the plural of rubbish?


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