Leading Article: An experiment that proves the strength of the new politics

LABOUR'S MINORITIES in Holyrood and Cardiff are the best proof of the virtues of proportional representation. Opponents of PR may point to the continuing negotiations between Labour and the Liberal Democrats as evidence that coalition government is weak. And Tony Blair, who has always been "not persuaded" on the merits of PR for Westminster, may allow the doubters inside his Cabinet to make him "not persuaded" some more. None the less, if Mr Blair remains serious about renewing Britain's democracy, he should welcome governments that reflect the will of the people.

Though the Government kicked into touch the proposals for PR at Westminster made by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead last autumn, the Prime Minister must not let the grass grow over them. Labour has only fared badly in Wales and Scotland if they are considered to be Labour's by right and for ever. Indeed, it is telling that Labour has done as well as it has, given the decades of mismanagement of its rotten boroughs in Glasgow and the Valleys.

And therefore it is to be hoped that out of the new consensual politics will emerge a system in which serving the interests of the entire public - rather than scoring ideological points - will move to the centre of the political debate. In London's borough of Lambeth, for example, the failure of any one party to get an overall majority for reform and the experience of a hung council forced everyone to work together for the benefit of the voters, instead of indulging in ideological whingeing. The Liberal Democrats' seizure of Sheffield is another instance where the underlying consensus between the parties is disguised and suppressed through the first past the post system.

Proportional representation, of course, only leads to coalition government when that reflects what the people want. Not since 1935 has a party won the votes of a majority of the electorate. Despite its huge majority in Parliament, the Labour party won only 43 per cent of the vote in the last general election.

Kosovo exposes some of the weaknesses of the present system. Mr Blair appreciates that his majority of lobby fodder does not represent the support of the country. If he were leading a coalition government with an absolute majority of the electorate behind him (as he would with a Lib-Lab pact), he would be more certain of his position and, therefore, more able to give the war some direction; without that certainty he remains paralysed by the fear that a majority of the public will turn against him.

Partnership government is strong government because it forces Holyrood and Cardiff to work for the interests of all the people of Scotland and Wales. Mr Blair should forget the focus groups and extend these experiments.

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