Leading Article: A victory for proportional representation

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BRITAIN IS a different country now. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly are patently not the sham that was once feared. They are real federal bodies to which power has not simply been devolved; it will be seized by national politicians on their new national stages. The fact that Labour has a majority in neither assembly is doubly significant. It means that policies in Scotland and Wales will be substantively different from those in England. And it means that Labour, whatever its control- freak tendencies and its contradictions, has given real power away, voluntarily embracing pluralism.

At least as important as the outcome is the means by which it was achieved. The Scottish and the Welsh elections proved that the voters are capable of operating new, more proportional electoral systems. All that patronising guff about how voters would find the two-vote top-up system too complicated turned out to be unfounded. There was still a knee-jerk spasm of New Labour's Mr Hyde in Alun Michael, the party's leader in Wales, who emerged from the polling station on Thursday to remark that the ballot paper required so many crosses, it was "like a bingo game".

However, his threat to "review" the system will come to nothing because his fellow citizens clearly had no trouble in using it to vote for pluralism in the new Assembly. Plaid Cymru's triumphant breakout from its former Welsh-speaking ghettos is one of the healthiest signs of a distinctively Welsh politics emerging as a result of devolution. By ditching independence, which is supported by only one-10th of the Welsh electorate, Plaid Cymru has grown up, and ensured that Labour will face an effective opposition in the Assembly.

Scottish politics was already of the grown-up variety, but the vote there was, none the less, an endorsement of proportional representation. If the outcome is - as it ought to be - a Lab-Lib coalition, rather than a Labour minority government fighting its business through the Parliament issue by issue, that will most fairly and accurately reflect the will of the Scottish people. The Prime Minister's objection to proportional representation (PR), that it tends to give too much power to small parties, does not apply. The Liberal Democrats may have come fourth in this election, but if the likely programme of the Dewar-Wallace administration is examined closely it will be seen as overwhelmingly Labour. There are two important exceptions: tuition fees and PR for Scottish local councils. The Lib Dems are likely to insist on some retreat in Scotland on tuition fees for university students. That is a bad policy, because it will mean taking money out of budgets where it is more urgently needed, but there is no denying that it is what the people of Scotland want.

And the issue of electoral reform returns us to one of the most important lessons from Thursday. There was much wailing and self-laceration, if not actual gnashing of teeth, among the political classes about the low turnout at the polls. Apathy and cynicism are, Tony Blair has told us, the real enemies of his Third Way. Only 29 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote in the local elections in England, eight points down on the last time that these seats were fought. That may, in part, be an index of contentment with Mr Blair's Government, but it may also reflect the fact that votes in safe seats are seen as wasted votes. Whatever, it is not good for the democratic health of the nation.

One of the best answers to this problem is to bring in PR for local elections. The turnout figures in Scotland and Wales, at 59 per cent and 46 per cent respectively, were relatively healthy. There are plenty of explanations for these higher figures - the greater importance and powers of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, and their novelty - but turnouts may stay high in future because, under the PR system, every vote really does count.

This week's local elections saw the beginning of a rebalancing of the tortuous process by which voters try to use the first-past-the-post system to ensure that their council does not become a single-party fiefdom. The Lib Dems spent years establishing themselves as an alternative Conservative Party while the Tory grip on Westminster declined. Now they have to concentrate on opposing Labour in order to keep Labour councils, and the Labour Government, honest.

However, this is a crude and insensitive mechanism for curbing the tendency of one-party councils to corruption: a PR system is more likely to force parties to share power.

Labour should bring in a fairer voting system for local government in Scotland, not because the Lib Dems demand it but because it is right - and it is right not just for Scotland but for local councils all over Britain.