Alan Watkins: Mr Brown's real alternative voting reform

The Prime Minister doesn't need to consult the other parties: he should use Labour's majority to modernise the electoral system
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The Independent Online

Political parties, like newspapers, are fond of having a relaunch. Sometime it works, sometimes not. Mr Tony Blair was in a perpetual state of relaunch, whether symbolised by "reform" (New Labour language for private enterprise or crazed computerisation) or, more vaguely still, by "eye-catching initiatives", which usually involved Mr Blair himself in some guise or other.

For the past decade, Mr Gordon Brown has done more than his share. Mr Brown's Private Finance Initiative has reduced the National Health Service to a state of near-bankruptcy, with semi-complete hospitals being bought and sold like pork bellies in a Chicago meat market. The financial arrangements that Mr Brown imposed on the London Underground have seen the city's transport brought to chaos.

Worse still: the tripod that Mr Brown erected Treasury, Bank of England and regulatory authority is proving decidedly wonky. It is said that the Northern Rock debacle was "not his fault". But he took all the credit for the prosperity when the going was good. Some of it belonged to his predecessor, Mr Kenneth Clarke, though Mr Clarke had opposed the giving of independence to the Bank.

On this question, I remain agnostic. On the broader question, however of regulation with what Mr Brown calls "a light touch" the new Prime Minister does not appear nearly so self-confident as he did a few months ago.

The Government still has two clear years to run. Indeed, throughout the excitements of the summer and the early autumn, I still thought Mr Brown would last the whole term, or for the best part of it.

What can happen is that governments lose the will to live. This came about in 1950-51, when Labour had a majority of five. According to the then prevailing wisdom, this was too small for effective government. There was something approaching panic in Buckingham Palace, where George VI was ill. And so were several senior ministers, who had served not only in the postwar Labour government but in the wartime coalition before that. C R Attlee went to the country in 1951, after 18 months, not really expecting to win; nor did he.

History has treated Attlee indulgently. He had no choice in the matter: that was the accepted view, both then and subsequently. I am not so sure. If Attlee or somebody else had managed to stick it out, the Korean War would have been over, the terms of trade would have been turned in our favour and Labour, rather than the Conservatives, would have inaugurated the age of affluence. Who knows?

Sir John Major, by contrast, hung on till the end. He started off with a majority of 21 and finished in a minority of three. He half-heartedly threatened a general election over the Maastricht Treaty, but his Cabinet colleagues were not having any of that and he was forcibly restrained.

What he did do was to resign as leader of the party but to remain as Prime Minister. As Enoch Powell pointed out at the time, this was constitutionally impossible, but no one took the slightest bit of notice. Sir John was duly re-elected leader, though less triumphantly than his supporters claimed at the time.

If Mr Brown has a model, it ought to be Jim Callaghan. This may strike you as paradoxical, even perverse. It is not intended to be so. After the tantrums of the Wilson years, Callaghan surrounded himself with solid men.

Mr Brown has a solid citizen in Mr Alistair Darling and a good woman in Ms Jacqui Smith. Once she can tell the difference between 28 days and 42, and stop losing things, and prevent Mr Jack Straw from taking over her job, she will be the very model of a modern Home Secretary.

Callaghan had two years, not perhaps of outstanding achievement, but of relative tranquillity. It was thought he would probably win the next election. He was sustained by the Lib-Lab pact, from which the Liberals received very little but which maintained Labour in office until 1978 and the crisis over Scottish devolution.

Mr Brown has a perfectly good majority, though he is silly to imperil it by playing games with extended periods of detention and the like. What he lacks is the confidence in electoral success which, for a time, he possessed. Mr Brown has to lose only something over 30 seats for Labour to lose its absolute majority.

In the circumstances, it ought not to be Mr David Cameron who is courting Mr Nick Clegg though Mr Cameron has already been pressing his suit but Mr Brown. If Mr Clegg is wise, he will be polite but distant. Lord Ashdown allowed Mr Blair to lead him up the garden path, partly because in 1997 Labour had secured a huge majority and partly because most of Mr Blair's colleagues did not want to have anything to do with the Liberal Democrats.

However, it is often forgotten that, in 1997, Labour made a specific manifesto promise to look again at the electoral system. This promise was even fulfilled, to the extent that Roy Jenkins then an admirer of Mr Blair, as Mr Blair was of him wrote a lengthy and readable report.

Jenkins recommended the Alternative Vote, the ballot papers being marked 1, 2, 3, ... until an absolute majority was attained. There was an additional "topping-up" system for the sake of proportionality.

I am not, I confess, a great admirer of topping up from party lists. But that is by the way. The Jenkins proposals were quickly forgotten. The principal supporters of the Alternative Vote were Mr Peter Mandelson and the late Robin Cook. Mr Peter Hain was also an early convert. About Mr Straw I am not sure. As Home Secretary in the first Blair government, he certainly did a lot of hard work on various constitutional measures.

Mr John Prescott was always resolutely opposed to what a Victorian statesman once called "fancy franchises", but Mr Prescott has moved to other spheres. In Ramsay MacDonald's minority government of 1929-31, Labour came within months of adopting the Alternative Vote. It was forestalled by the economic crisis of 1931.

In Sir Menzies Campbell's Perth speech in March, he listed various heads of co-operation with Labour. Most of them were both vague and forgettable. The only one to stick in the memory was the non-introduction of identity cards. Sir Menzies did not mention electoral reform, which, a party spokesman explained afterwards, was so obvious that it did not need mentioning.

The old party prejudices remain. Labour does not like co-operating with the Liberal Democrats. On the other hand, the Lib Dems hate the Tories (though that did not prevent them from entering into electoral pacts with the Liberals of long ago).

The rational course for Mr Brown to follow would be for Labour, using its majority, to introduce the Alternative Vote without consultation with any other party. Perhaps that would take too long. Mr Cameron might even be the beneficiary. In any case, Mr Brown is more likely to follow his old Labour instincts.