Blair won't stick his neck out for electoral reform

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The Independent Online
DIANE ABBOTT confessed on BBC1's Question Time that she would rather watch paint dry than discuss electoral reform, a sentiment endorsed by the fortunate millions with more to do between polling days than fret over the manner in which politicians will divide up the spoils next time round.

Mr Blair does not have much in common with the cheerfully unreconstructed Ms Abbott, but in the wake of the Lord Jenkins report on the matter, his demeanour suggests that he too finds a long night in with the Dulux preferable to dwelling on the commission's proposals. After a year-and-a-half in office, the Prime Minister is still a touchingly transparent man. When he wants something to happen, he uses the word "passionately" and gazes upwards in visionary thrall to whatever he is endorsing. When he doesn't, he fiddles with his notes at the dispatch box and talks fluent weaselese.

So when he bent his head over his notes and said he "envisaged" a referendum on Lord Jenkins's AV-plus hybrid in the lifetime of this parliament, it was clear that this was as likely to happen as the renationalisation of the high street banks. "Envisage" is as tentative as you can get without saying "not bloody likely".

Lord Jenkins has produced a magnificent report which makes a dull subject compelling. For all its bias, which is considerable, this is a political document of weight and craftsmanship. It raises all the right questions, nails the flaws of first-past-the-post and takes us for a pithy wander round the world's alternatives. The author is as dedicated a connoisseur of coalitions as he is of clarets, even if his palate is at times eccentric.

He cites the German PR and list-based system as having "produced very good government. In view of the country's previous history, it is almost a miracle." True, but then again, first-past-the-post after 1949 would not have delivered son of Hitler either. He then attributes the achievements of Konrad Adenauer to coalitions. But Adenauer was the least inclusive of Chancellors who barely included his own cabinet in decisions.

His reign lasted so long not because he shared power at home but because he was in coalition with the Allies and America. A people shattered by war and with an ideological divide running through their country were more comfortable with his robust anti-Communist Atlanticism than the more elastic Social Democrats.

When Gerhard Schroder became Chancellor in coalition with the Green Party after defeating Helmut Kohl in elections in September, it was the first time that a serving leader had been ejected from office by the electorate in the post-war period. The two major changes of government previously in Bonn came about because the Free Democrats changed sides. It is difficult to see the democratic gain in a party with a fraction of the popular vote enjoying such a commanding position in the making and breaking of governments.

The other great intended import from Germany - albeit on a smaller scale - is the selection of between 15 and 20 per cent of candidates by regional list. Trust not the combination of lists and party managers. The second most powerful job in any German party is that of chief whip. Lists of approved candidates have produced a Bundestag so dull that the supporters of a switch to the German system should be forced to attend 10 sessions in a row and then see how they like it.

Bonn's electoral system was finely calibrated to ensure the greatest possible check on the power of one party. But we are not all starting from the same place. Electoral systems express the hopes and fears of those who design the system. The reason that New Labour has landed itself with a carefully crafted report from a senior figure which, it now turns out, it does not really want, is that until the annus mirabilis of 1997, Labour had become so accustomed to failure that it did not think that it could win a stonking great election victory alone.

Because it was so fearful of never regaining power, or almost worse, being a one-term interregnum while the Tories caught their breath and re-armed, it drifted towards embracing a different voting system in the belief that it would need to form coalitions with the Liberal Democrats in order to govern.

When the full story of the last election is written, it is very likely to emerge that Mr Blair intended, in the event of securing only a modest majority, to invite Paddy Ashdown and Menzies Campbell into his Cabinet. The size of the majority scuppered that plan. It also allowed Labour backbenchers to slip the fetters of gloom and crow that the party's hour in the sun had come. Why share the glory? So, just as in those heart-breaking episodes in Sense and Sensibility where wicked Willoughby strings trusting Eleanor along to believe that he intends to propose to her, New Labour has been dallying with the affections of the Liberal Democrats without really meaning it. Only now is it dawning on them that Mr Blair may not be the marrying kind.

The intellectual underpinning of electoral reform on the centre-left is the recreation of the great progressive coalition of the 19th century. Certainly, Mr Blair has found this an inspiring notion. Even Prime Ministers dream. But he has been attracted to other synthesising ideals - stakeholding and communitarianism, which he has subsequently found wanting or impracticable, and discarded.

The Prime Minister is committed to reforms such as devolution and changing the House of Lords, which he knows to be popular and which seem to him to be sensible amendments to the sclerosis of the British constitution. But he does not take unnecessary risks, whose rewards are highly uncertain. As long as there is the teeniest risk of losing a referendum on electoral reform, he will not hold it. That means that he will not hold it before the election, when he is likely to be stewarding Britain through choppy economic waters, nor on polling day when it would muddy the issue of his re-election.

Those reformers who hope that bringing the third party into government would add a radical, individualistic edge to New Labour haven't been talking to mainstream Liberal Democrats. They are a party whose radical vigour is long gone. Their intellectual giants are either, like Lord Jenkins, New Labourites before their time or, like the urbane Lord Russell, Whigs after their time. Of the great sweep of ideas, the commitments to radical causes, there is barely a trace.

The more Mr Blair contemplates embracing them in perpetuity, the less appealing he will find the thought. The more the public hear of the details of AV-plus, the less they will like it. Such is Jenkins's paradox - in which the prospect of change becomes more and more distant, just when it seems to be imminent.