A winning reform for Labour

The party must not ditch John Smith's promise of a referendum on our electoral system
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The Independent Online
In recent weeks it has become clear that the Labour Party's current policy of holding a referendum on the issue of electoral reform for the House of Commons will come under intense pressure at the party conference in October. A determined attempt will be made to defeat the policy first announced by the late John Smith, endorsed by all the candidates in the leadership election after his death, and confirmed by Tony Blair once he took over the leadership of the party.

Two years ago, the then leadership and the party conference accepted that a referendum was the right policy. John Smith took the view that the electoral system was not the property of a party or a government or of MPs - it was a matter for the people. A referendum remains the right policy now. Closing the door on the possibility of electoral reform would undermine New Labour's commitment to openness and pluralism in politics, and even looking at it at the most instrumental level, could well damage Labour's long-term desire to reshape society in the way that it wants.

Pluralism has become a byword in New Labour vocabulary, and in the area of constitutional change it has come to mean particularly the protection of individual rights through the incorporation of the European convention on human rights into UK law; the devolution of power to a Scottish parliament to be elected by PR, and to a Welsh assembly (although the party in Wales has rejected PR for it); eventual devolution to London and the English regions as demand manifests itself; and reform of the Lords to make it a more effective and legitimate check on the power of the Commons.

For some constitutional conservatives in the party, this already goes too far; for others it is enough, without raising the issue of the electoral system. Those who take this view believe that the devolution of power is itself a sufficient commitment to pluralism. The Westminster parliament would devolve and share power with other bodies, including revitalised local government. One way of describing this is "inter-institutional pluralism".

Those committed to electoral reform, of whom I am one, want to go further, and are committed to what might be called "intra-institutional pluralism", which means having an electoral system which is more representative of society as a whole and which will create a parliament in which the executive has continually to seek greater consent for its policies.

So the debate about the referendum is also a debate about the meaning and scope of this commitment to greater pluralism and the extent to which government has to build a wider degree of consent for its policies.

Although there are many arguments for and against electoral reform, in my experience in chairing the Labour Party's working party on electoral systems, three carry most weight with critics of change in the party. First, it is argued, first-past-the-post produces strong single-party government. Of course, it does produce single-party government (although there is no built-in reason why this should happen and it may not do so if the Liberal Democrats remain strong in significant areas of the country).

But is strong government the same as effective government? Looking around Europe at states with more pluralistic electoral systems, it is not obvious that the need to secure greater consent for policies leads to ineffective government, whether at the national, regional or local level. It is a mistake to assume uncritically that single-party government relying on a substantial majority in parliament based on a minority vote is the same as effective government.

Allied to this is the view of many on the old "left" (many on the "new" left are in favour of electoral reform) that the need for government to negotiate consent would prevent a Labour government from pursuing socialist policies. Leaving aside what is meant by socialism in this critique and whether a Blair government with a large majority would in any case pursue what they mean by socialism, those who take this view need to ponder two things. The first is that the logic of first-past-the-post and its winner- takes-all effect has been to drive parties to the centre ground. This has clearly happened to Labour since the early 1980s. Second, first- past-the-post has provided Labour with only two real opportunities for large-scale social change, namely 1945 and 1966. First-past-the-post has also allowed Conservative governments since 1979 to dismantle many of the reforms of those two governments.

The final argument which has weighed heavily with critics has been the fact that a Labour government under a reformed system would have to share power and negotiate with other parties, most obviously the Liberal Democrats - a criticism which brings us back to the ambiguities of pluralism already mentioned.

I cannot believe that rejecting a referendum is in the long-term interest of the Labour Party. It would look very opportunistic to drop the commitment because it looks at the moment as though Labour will win well under first- past-the-post. More importantly, though, Labour needs to consider the longer term and the need to secure its own vision of a fairer, more humane form of market society, which defends individuals and communities.

This may be best secured by the possibility of electoral reform. If the Tories lose the election, they are likely to move to the right, and critics of reform should consider whether we really do want a Portillo or Redwood government, sustained on a minority vote under first-past-the-post.

Finally, although in some Labour circles it may sound like swearing in church, we also have to consider our relations with the Liberal Democrats. Whatever happens over the referendum, Labour has a very large constitutional agenda to get through parliament. The Tories will fight these proposals tooth and nail, and it has to be remembered that many Labour MPs are not wildly enthusiastic about these policies. It is vital that constitutional change goes through parliament on as broad a base as possible and with the largest number of votes as can be mustered. The Liberal Democrats will be appalled at the proposal to drop the referendum, and this would not augur well for cross-party co-operation in securing the biggest constitutional changes this century on the basis of Bills which will be exceptionally difficult to get through parliament intact.

Pluralism is part of the vocabulary of New Labour. Surely the time has come to try and institutionalise such pluralism and not to see it as one policy option among others. A referendum on the electoral system is a vital part of that.

The writer is master of St Catherine's College, Oxford, and a Labour spokesman on home affairs in the House of Lords.