A perfect blueprint for splitting the Labour Party

The idea that out of all this chaos and upheaval the Tories would be the automatic losers is naive
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The Independent Culture
WHILE THE high point of most people's general election night was the defeat of Portillo, the real disappointment of the evening was the survival of Michael Howard. In his constituency of Folkestone and Hythe he was able to cling on with less than 40 per cent of the vote because the Labour and Liberal candidates split the remainder equally.

It was a case of the anti-Tory vote not knowing which way to jump, and as such was very much the exception of the 1997 election. Labour and Lib Dem voters often transferred to each other's candidates, depending on who had been the runner-up at the previous election. The consequences for the Tories of the growing tactical vote will be even more devastating at the next general election. No one will have to guess who is best placed to keep the Tories out, and I suspect that the Labour vote will collapse in seats held by Lib Dem MPs, and vice versa in Labour seats.

I was one of the early beneficiaries of this trend, back at the 1992 general election. At the previous election I had just managed to squeak in with a 1,600-vote majority, so the Tories made a special target of my seat, assisted by anti-abortionists who moved in activists from all over Britain to throw their weight behind the anti-abortion Tory candidate. As speculation mounted that I might lose, Lib Dem voters deserted their candidate for me, to keep the Tory out.

At the next election tactical voting will cost the Tories at least 50 seats. Sadly, however, this will largely be an exercise in voting for a lesser evil.

The real disappointment of the Jenkins Commission on changing the voting system is that it will institutionalise a mentality of voting for a lesser evil in every constituency in Britain. By introducing a version of the Australian Alternative Vote (AV) system, rather than going for genuine proportional representation, Roy Jenkins has opened up the real prospect of allowing the supporters of first past the post (FPTP) to win the referendum.

This is the great tragedy, because many people like myself who have long fought for a truly representative voting system will be left with no alternative but to support first past the post, because the AV-based alternative is even worse.

If anyone needs examples of just how bad FPTP can be, they only have to wait for the result of the forthcoming election in Quebec, which looks like being an almost identical rerun of the 1994 election in which the Parti Quebecois won 44.8 per cent of the vote and got 74 seats, while the Quebec Liberal Party won 44.4 per cent of the votes but got only 45 seats. And we can't overlook the fact that here in Britain Labour has more than 60 per cent of the seats in Parliament, based on just 43.5 per cent of the vote.

The problem with FPTP is that very small shifts in votes cast can be magnified into a huge landslide in seats won. By the time you read this, we will be getting the early results of the American Congressional elections and debating whether there has been another landslide, which would allow Newt Gingrich's Republicans to continue their reactionary revolution.

Yet for all the talk of the so-called Republican landslide in 1994, the reality was that the Republicans gained just 51 per cent of the vote! Roy Jenkins really had to go some to find a system even worse than this and yet as we saw in the recent Australian elections, AV produced a result where Labour won a majority of the votes but the conservatives won a majority of the seats.

The problem with AV was summed up perfectly by Winston Churchill when he pointed out that it allows an election to be decided by "the least important votes of the least important candidates". Those voters who have backed one of the two strongest candidates in a constituency get no further say in the process, whereas those who have voted for minor parties and crank candidates then get a second vote to determine the outcome between the two leading parties. I can see no logic to justify a majority of the representatives in Parliament being determined by a small minority of voters in each seat who will be allowed the luxury of a second vote.

Roy Jenkins's strategy is honestly spelt out in his report. He hopes it will lead to Labour candidates adapting their policies to appeal to Lib Dem voters in the hope that eventually Labour and the Lib Dems move so close together that they fuse into one party.

There are just two problems with this rosy scenario. First, we would not be talking about the fusion of Labour and the Lib Dems, but the break- up of the Labour Party. While Labour's social democrats went off to merge with Paddy, Labour's left would be in a genuinely socialist party based on the trade unions. It is impossible to know how many Labour MPs would go in each direction, but while the majority would hold their seats, the Tories would be well placed to make gains where the new centre party and classic Labour ended up in close contests.

The other fundamental flaw in Jenkins's strategy is that a big chunk of Lib Dem supporters could be won back to the Tories, who would still see the new centre party as a Labour Party in all but name. The idea that out of all this chaos and upheaval the Tories would be the automatic losers is simply naive.

Roy Jenkins claims that, in his system, out of the last four elections there would have been a hung Parliament only in 1992, but the Tory majorities of Mrs Thatcher would have been dramatically reduced. I am not so sure. In the Eighties it was the Labour Party that was deeply unpopular. We could well have seen even larger Tory majorities. The votes of the eliminated Liberal and other minor party candidates when forced to choose between the Labour and Tory front-runners would have been much more likely to go Tory than Labour.

Roy Jenkins will undoubtedly argue that the Tory majority would have been reduced, in line with how people cast their second vote for the additional members he proposes to add to those elected from constituencies. Is he seriously asking us to believe that a worried voter concerned about the Labour Party would have dared risk his or her supplementary vote for a Liberal Party that might have been tempted into a coalition with Labour? I have no doubt that in the hysteria of those times. Roy Jenkins's system would have produced larger Tory majorities and allowed Mrs Thatcher to claim that she had the support of the majority of the British people. That is the most telling insight about the Jenkins Report.