The Diary: A big bad Liberal wolf with not a lot of puff
Sunday 27 September 1998
He had uttered the definitive argument against abandoning the first-past- the-post electoral system by which we now choose members of parliament. I wish Roy Jenkins, who heads the commission charged with recommending an alternative, more proportional system, had been present to hear this remark, made in the car park of Emmanuel Church, Blackwin Street.
Jenkins is due to report next month. No electoral arrangement he can come up with will satisfy the "that's-my-MP" enthusiasts. The truly proportional Single Transferable Vote system, which my constituent left behind in Ireland, provides for huge multi- member constituencies in which several parliamentarians compete against each other to be identified as "my MP". The additional member system, which it is said Jenkins is likely to come up with, would reduce the number of constituency MPs to 500 from the present 659, and top it up with 150 MPs elected "at large" on a proportional basis according to the votes cast over the whole country.
These 150 would have no responsibility to anyone except the party bosses who chose them. Mere voters would not figure in their plans. This is the system they have in Germany, of which a press report said recently: "It is pointless in Germany to set up a programme for the first 100 days in government since it will take about that time to decide who is actually in charge." Yet we are told that, unless Tony Blair champions, in a speedy referendum, whatever dog's breakfast Jenkins comes up with, a terrible revenge will be exacted on Labour by such infuriating Liberal Democrats as Charles Kennedy (who he?).
I am reminded of a meeting of a Labour National Executive sub-committee in those ghastly early 1980s - after the Liberals had voted with Margaret Thatcher to bring down the government led by that notorious extremist, Jim Callaghan - when such as Eric Heffer (in this particular case Heffer himself) were in control. Heffer had taken exception to a statement made by a member of the sub-committee (myself to be exact) and rumbled ominously: "This has got to stop - or else."
"Or else what?" Eric Varley, the party treasurer queried mildly.
Heffer responded: "Or else, or else - nothing."
That sums up with precision the true weight of the threat from Kennedy and his like. For all the favours can go only one way, from Labour to the Liberal Democrats; and there are those who believe that too many favours are going in that direction already. There are nine times as many Labour MPs as Liberal Democrats. The Government's parliamentary majority is four times the Lib Dems' total parliamentary strength - which, incidentally, derives to a considerable extent from Labour supporters casting tactical votes to defeat Tories. In my constituency, Labour activists would bathe in prussic acid rather that do deals with the Liberal Democrats.
THE GAIETY of the nation has been much enhanced by the squabbles about whom the BBC originally intended to appoint as the new Controller of Radio 3. What is indisputable is that the man who has got the job, Roger Wright, is a good egg. He is said really to care about the role of a service which has been dumbed down to such an extent that many who used to like it hate it, while those whom the dumbing down is supposed to attract don't bother to listen. I offer Wright the following agenda:
1) Get rid of the maddening trailers. Listeners are told so much and so often about attractions to come that there is hardly any time for the material the trailers interrupt.
2) Enough, already, of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. The BBC is not suspected of being anti-semitic, so it doesn't have to prove its bona fides by turning Radio 3 into a predominantly Jewish station. It truly is acceptable for a day to go by without our being reminded of the existence of Strike up the Band, West Side Story and Appalachian Spring.
3) Sack some of the presenters and shut the rest up. Send them on a course to learn how to pronounce the names of the composers and the works they composed.
I HAVE been reading a funny, silly, evocative, naive book, Things Can Only Get Better, by John O'Farrell, a Labour Party member who is daft enough still to support the self-destructive policies responsible for Labour's defeats throughout the 1980s, but sensible enough to acknowledge that these policies had to be junked.
O'Farrell was once a scriptwriter for Spitting Image and he reports that Gordon Brown "commented that Spitting Image was being very cruel in its depiction of Gerald Kaufman".
I was deeply touched in reading of Gordon's concern, but I was completely unaware of the cruelty of which he complained. People used to ask me how I felt about being on Spitting Image. The fact was that I never watched it.
BECAUSE Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, falls bang in the middle of this week, I shall not be travelling to Blackpool for the Labour Party Conference. So I shall be deprived of the privilege of queuing throughout the lunch hour on Tuesday to fight for a chance to hear the leader's speech. Payment of pounds 50 for an MP's conference credential does not guarantee a seat.
I have given grovelling support to every change Tony Blair has made in the way the Labour Party is run. Is it too much to ask that, before next year's conference, Tony should intervene to stop lobby fodder, such as myself, from being treated like dirt?
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