Labour squares up for the battle it need not fight

'What political parties stand for is a good deal more important than what their labels are'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The relentlessly trendy Charter 88 is in danger of losing the plot. In seeking to expose "elective dictatorship" its report, "Unlocking Democracy", published yesterday, has a real point. But it waffles on too much about participative politics and too little about the glaring deficiencies in our system of representative democracy. It under-estimates the importance of nuts and bolts Commons reform, which has very little to do with hours and the shape of the chamber. And it even gets slightly wrong its ritual call for a proportional electoral system.

The relentlessly trendy Charter 88 is in danger of losing the plot. In seeking to expose "elective dictatorship" its report, "Unlocking Democracy", published yesterday, has a real point. But it waffles on too much about participative politics and too little about the glaring deficiencies in our system of representative democracy. It under-estimates the importance of nuts and bolts Commons reform, which has very little to do with hours and the shape of the chamber. And it even gets slightly wrong its ritual call for a proportional electoral system.

Despite the classic argument for proportional representation that it, too, acts as a brake on over-mighty government because it reduces the likelihood of over-large majorities, it is actually in a rather different category. A government which at the very least adopted the maximalist Wakeham recommendation for democratising the Lords, introduced a Freedom of Information Act with teeth, and above all reformed the Commons in the one way which matters most - by making Select Committees more powerful and removing their composition from the clammy hands of the party whips - would scarcely need PR for that reason.

No, the simmering debate within Labour on PR which will blow up first at the National Policy Forum next month and then at the party conference in October illustrates something else, namely a kind of atrophy at the heart of the British left. We'll come to this in a moment. First there is the little question of whether the Labour First Past the Posters' triumphalist belief in the doctrine of "ourselves alone" is even in the self-interest of the Labour tribe.

It is only rational for the unions, notably the engineers and the GMB, to try and ditch the pledge for a referendum in the next parliament, if they think it is in the party's naked self-interest. Yet an analysis prepared for the pro-electoral reform group Make Votes Count by Professor John Curtice effectively suggests that it isn't. The Romsey by-election was a stunning success for tactical voting - a phenomenon acknowledged to be in Labour's selfish interests, first because it means that Lib Dems will vote Labour in Tory-Labour marginals, and secondly because if Labour votes go to Lib Dems in Lib Dem-Tory marginals it helps to increase Labour's showing against the Tories. But elsewhere on the same day, Curtice suggests, tactical voting, which played such a spectacular part in the scale of the Labour landslide in 1997, proved to be not quite as embedded a practice in the British electoral psyche as you might think. In the local elections there was a lot less of it, which is one reason for Labour's relatively poor showing.

The extent of tactical voting next time, Curtice suggests, will depend in large part on the voters' perception of how big they think are the differences between Labour and the Lib Dems. That in turn depends on the signals the two parties send out about each other.

In the 1997 election the two parties had an unofficial non-aggression pact. Charles Kennedy, with a more relaxed attitude to the details of Lib-Labbery than his predecessor, but with an appetite for real power, is in a strong position after Romsey. He has also positioned himself skilfully - while being restrained in his attacks on Labour - as the conscience of the centre left, which is a good job to have just now. But the one safe bet is that if the referendum pledge is ditched at the Labour conference, Kennedy would have little reason, always supposing he wanted one, to resist pressure from councillors elated by battles with Labour in northern cities, to kill off any hopes of such co-operation.

One way to keep it going might be for the Labour leadership to support, at least as a first stage, the Alternative Vote, a halfway house which isn't actually proportional, but merely institutionalises tactical voting, and could defuse a lot of the opposition to electoral reform in the Labour Party. Peter Mandelson, who addresses a Make Votes Count meeting next week - and is himself, unlike Tony Blair, among the most tribalist of Labour politicians - came out publicly for AV before the election. But there are two potential disadvantages.

One is that to be sure of gaining the Liberal Democrats' support it might have to be combined with proportional representation for local government, something to which John Prescott is apparently unequivocally opposed.

The other is that Lord Jenkins, the custodian emeritus of the reformist flame, came out against AV-only in his seminal report, preferring it to be combined with a top-up to make it more proportional, and so much less of a Labour-Lib Dem stitch up at the expense of the Tories. Lord Jenkins is now said to feel more warmly towards AV-only as a first stage of reform, not least because he is fed up that scarcely any Tories, in contrast to the last time they were in opposition, have come forward to support reform. But that doesn't alter the soundness of his original objections - which could make an AV-only referendum even more difficult to win. Which may mean the best way forward would be to commit on the referendum pledge, without fixing the system now.

One of the weirdest contradictions in the arguments of the last ditch enthusiasts of the status quo is that their dread of "Liberals" and "Social Democrats" is so obsolete. Once upon a time it was perfectly sane to argue that if Labour got into bed with the third party, its left-wing principles would somehow be diluted by politicians of the centre. But this is now the politics of the time warp.

The politicians about whom this used to be said, the Jenkins's, the Williams's, and the Rodgers's, the Kennedys, not to mention the Lord Russells, the Jackie Ballards and the Simon Hughes's behind them, tend, when they criticise the Government, to do so from a position which can be said to be more or less to the liberal left of the Labour Party - echoing the private thoughts, it can be assumed, of some of those mainstream MPs and party activists apparently so opposed to changing the electoral system as a means of bringing the parties closer together.

Apart from individual MPs protecting their own rock solid Labour seats, there is nothing in this opposition to change but vindictiveness against the apostasy of those who left Labour to form the SDP - even though New Labour is now more revisionist than the apostates themselves.

Which is just the point. For there is, or should be, a higher motive on the left than mere pragmatism dictated by the dawning realisation that Labour could now face a real contest at the general election. When two parties stand together on so much of the same ground, why should they not benefit from each other's best characteristics? This isn't a mere abstract. Jack Straw could do with some of Simon Hughes' liberalism. Simon Hughes could do with some of Jack Straw's sense of the popular pulse on the council estates.

But whether they agree about that, there is something that the electors know much better than the elected; what parties stand for is a good deal more important than what their labels are.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

Comments