A vote for choice - and chaos

Labour's decision to hold a referendum on PR leaves hard facts to be faced. By Roy Hattersley
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The Independent Online
The more the Labour Party moves towards the middle ground of politics the more attractive a coalition government becomes - not least because on some key issues Liberals have outflanked Labour on the left.

A Labour government with Liberal education policies might become a genuinely radical administration. But it would raise all the difficult questions about political propriety that coalition critics claim are never answered. Tony Blair has guaranteed not to raise taxes. Paddy Ashdown's promised a penny on the standard rate to finance school building and smaller class sizes. If, after May, a government was formed by a Labour and Liberal alliance, one party leader or another would have to break the solemn undertaking which had been made to the nation during the election campaign.

Coalitions make manifestos meaningless. All party leaders can offer is the attempt to include their policies in a Queen's Speech which might produce either the highest common factor or the lowest common denominator.

Coalitions are built on compromise. So each party goes into the election expecting to abandon part of its programme. That is the attraction to the un-idealogically inclined who believe that "men and women of goodwill should do their best for the country without bothering about party labels." Over the next couple of years, we have to decide if that is the sort of government we want. For under proportional representation - now firmly on the political agenda - it is the sort of government we would get.

The immediate consequences of a PR election are so certain that they can be described rather than predicted. The number of Liberal MPs will increase to a point where only a landslide victory would allow either Labour or the Conservatives to form a government without their support.

The Liberals would negotiate with both left and right before they chose the partner to which they gave power. Naturally they would form an alliance with whichever major party agreed to implement most of the minor party's policies. That is, in itself, a strange representation of the popular will. It would also be the beginning of the realignment of British politics.

A system which requires the government's policy to be written after the general election breaks down political loyalty. Voters support a party because of the manifesto and the mandate - the promise that, given enough seats in parliament, it will implement a specific programme. Cynics will argue that political promises are made to be broken. But voters take them seriously. That is why they rarely support maverick candidates, who do not contribute to the all important House of Commons majority, or risk "splitting the vote" by endorsing no-hopers. Once a govern- ment is dependent on horse trading between parties, the old allegiances become irrelevant. There is no direct connection between the candidates' ideology and the policy they are able to implement. Proportional representation encourages footloose voters.

Consider the dilemma now facing Reigate Conservatives. Many of them want to vote for Sir George Gardiner - either out of sympathy or because they share his views on Europe. But to vote for him in May would risk the election of a Liberal. So thousands will put their cross against the name of the official Tory candidate - their second chance at best. Under PR, they could vote for Sir George with political impunity. As long as the Liberals do not get an overall majority on the first ballot, one Tory or another would eventually represent the borough.

Fringe candidates - and eventually fringe parties - would multiply. Since it is the purpose of PR to elect a House of Commons which reflects national voting patterns, any party which secured more than one six hundred and fiftieth of the popular vote would deserve a seat.

Proponents of "fair voting" may try to skew the result by limiting election to parties which win an arbitrarily decided minimum national percentage. That is PR's protection against the charge that it would hand seats to extremists. But once the minorities are offered the prospect of contributing to a coalition, their political status would rise and their vote would rise with it. In some seaside beauty spot, recently devastated by an oil spill, a Green candidate would tell enraged voters that a Green MP would have a lever with which to move the government. Support for the coalition would be dependent on improved environment policy. There is a legitimate argument about the desirability of one issue MPs winning single session seats in the House of Commons. But there is no doubt that, under PR, it will happen.

Under the first-past-the-post system, the parties themselves are coalitions which are held together by their supporters' belief that they have more in common with each other than with their opponents. Ideological cohesion has never been a feature of British politics. For a year or two, Tories united behind Margaret Thatcher's success. Now, Labour has found its own natural winner.

The Tories' inherent disagreements surface at the first sign of failure and now they are fundamentally split over Europe. Labour will find it equally hard to survive a full parliament united. Tony Blair could not be more frank about "the new party" which he has created. But there are still some people about who like the old one. The present system requires them to moderate their reservations rather than risk a fifth defeat.

Under PR, the temptation to offer an independent alternative would be almost irresistible, for it would provide "genuine socialist policies" without risking "letting the Tories in". There are three "socialist" parties in Italy. From time to time they come together with "radicals" and "communists" to form a government. The last prime minister of a left of centre coalition led a party which commanded barely 10 per cent of the vote. Italy now intends to abandon proportional representation.

The simultaneous strength and weakness of the system is the power it provides for minorities. This is so great that the incentive to break up the old monolithic parties would be almost irresistible. Were a Tory "anti European party" to be formed, it would undoubtedly win seats in the House of Commons. Its influence over government policy would be far greater than the pressure that can be exerted by official Conservative back-benchers. If John Redwood led the anti-European faction, he would simply announce that the prime minister must choose between the rejection of a single currency and the collapse of the government. And nobody could legitimately blame him for exercising his power in that way. That is how coalitions work.

The case for such shifting alliances was set out by Roy Jenkins in his Dimbleby lecture - not (as is popularly supposed) a plea for the creation of a centre party, but a call for the return of the sort of parliament which ruled Britain before Gladstone's first administration. Until Gladstone and New Liberals developed dangerous ideas about party discipline and consistent policies, the people elected a parliament and parliament then decided who should be the government and how they should govern.

The invention of a manifesto offered the electorate the chance to vote for measures as well as men and took the decision about who should lead the country out of parliament's hands. When Labour won in 1945, a majority of Labour MPs wanted Herbert Morrison to become prime minister. The king sent for Clement Attlee. He, at least by implication, was the leader the voters had chosen. PR would take power from the people and return it to parliament.

That prospect is not necessarily a denial of democracy. Electoral systems must be judged according to the results they provide. It is possible to imagine the creation of an Inner Cities Party which would only sustain a coalition if it considered the needs of the poor; but, for good or ill, new parties and coalition governments are PR's inevitable consequences.

On Friday I phoned the Israeli Embassy to confirm that system elects the Knesset. "Why", I was asked rhetorically, "do you think we have so many small parties and find it so difficult to form governments?" That system may be what the people want. There is no doubt that if we introduce proportional representation, it is what they will get.