Smashing the mould of the two-party system

John Osmond looks back at a Welshman whose burning passion was democracy

The loss of Tom Ellis, former Labour MP for Wrexham and a leading figure in the launch of the SDP in the 1980s, removes a highly distinctive and important voice from the Welsh political scene. Tom, who has died aged 86, worked through the ranks after World War II to become manager of first Bersham colliery, at the relatively young age of 33, and later at Wrexham’s Haford pit. In many ways he was a product of the gwerin and a self-made organic intellectual. He was elected as Wrexham’s Labour MP in 1970 and in 1981 became one of the founding members of the Social Democratic Party. Although he lost his seat in the 1983 election ( by only 424 votes) he remained an influential thinker,and member of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, and one of the forces behind the re-emergence of devolution on the political agenda in the 1990s.

Despite his working class and Welsh-speaking roots in Rhosllanerchrugog he was a highly untypical Labour MP. In the first place he was intensely sensitive to Welsh national aspirations and saw Wales’s cultural and political future as intimately bound up with what he regarded as the parallel project of European integration.  For much of the 1970s he also served in the then nominated European Parliament, elected to the position by fellow Labour MPs. He once delivered a speech in Welsh to the Parliament in Strasbourg, to be told he was ‘out of order’. Typically reflecting his preoccupations, at the time of his death he was involved in translating into English Richard Wyn Jones’s two volume study of the development of Plaid Cymru’s philosophy, Rhoi Cymru’n Gyntaf: Syniadaeth Plaid Cymru.

Tom was soft-spoken and rather unworldly, in many ways unsuited for the cut and thrust of a political career. However, beneath his emollient exterior was concealed a burning passion for democracy. And he was not averse to a bit of low cunning as well. For instance, in Labour’s 1980 leadership election, though he was on the right of the party, Tom voted for Michael Foot rather than Denis Healey with the deliberate intention of helping provoke the split that eventually materialised. He was an early and passionate advocate of the emergence of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) that dominated political life in the early 1980s. It is doubly sad that Tom has not lived to see the outcome of the present general election campaign since, doubtless, he would have viewed his efforts in launching the SDP as a forerunner of the developments that are currently gathering pace and which may lead to the realignment of politics he so keenly sought.

His views were informed by a highly critical analysis of the role of the party in British politics which he saw as being inimical to democracy. A way had to be found for breaking the grip of the party on democracy by putting the people back in control.  As he put it, when he first broke his cover on the SDP project in January 1981, writing in the short-lived current affairs magazine ARCADE – Wales Fortnightly:

“Parliament has been rendered impotent by a stylised two-party system within which the gladiatorial posturings of opposing spokesmen in a confrontational House of Commons have produced a parody of objective parliamentary scrutiny. The highly developed whipping arrangements, enhanced by an idiosyncratic electoral system, demand unquestioningly that of party collectivism and the party line.”

Such an outlook has become commonplace today, but at the time it was a rare analysis, especially from a Labour MP. Tom’s answer to the two-party stranglehold on the windpipe of democracy was for a new Social Democratic Party that would, as he put it, “smash the mould”. But as he, presciently, also observed, it would be very difficult if not impossible for this to happen without electoral reform:

“The single most important practical adjustment necessary to the system is electoral reform and the introduction of an appropriate form of proportional representation.”

For Tom Ellis the essential component of this answer was bound up in that word ‘appropriate’. Henceforth he would become a doggedly determined campaigner for the only version of proportional representation that he believed stood a chance of breaking the stranglehold of the party. This was the single transferable vote. For it is only this system that allows the voter a choice of candidates within parties as well as between them. Every other system, such as the Additional Member List system that is used in elections for the National Assembly, places the power of selection and ranking of candidates entirely in the hands of the party machine.

Tom regarded this to be the crucial requirement, and nub of the argument, for creating an authentic democratic system. He explained it at length and with great intellectual rigour in a book that he and I jointly authored, Putting the People First: Electing a Welsh Assembly that was published by the Electoral reform Society in 1996. At the time the Welsh Labour Party was in the midst of an internal wrangle over whether to allow proportional representation for elections to the Assembly it had only recently swung behind, under the leadership of the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales Ron Davies. It took the Tony Blair’s decision in the summer of 1996 that a devolution referendum would have to be held for the Welsh party to be arm-twisted into agreeing to PR. But they never got as far as taking on board STV. That, of course, would have meant removing too much control from the hands of party managers and would have been a step too far.

In these years Tom Ellis became obsessed with the need for STV and was regarded by many as a political eccentric as a result. But his view was highly cogent and, certainly, the experience of working with him on publishing Putting the People First thoroughly convinced me of the case. As in so much else Tom Ellis was a man ahead of his time. Like his namesake a century earlier he was a forerunner of the emerging Welsh democracy that we enjoy today. But Tom was right. Welsh democracy will only really come of age when we embrace the single transferable vote in electing the National Assembly.

Tom Ellis published his autobiography After the Dust Has Settled (Bridge Books, Wrexham available here) in 2004.  An obituary appeared in the Guardian on 19 April 2010 here.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

Also within Politics and Policy