Funny how the Labour Party, as soon as it looks like losing, starts to discuss changing the voting system. Yet the Conservative Party, which has lost three elections in a row and faces an electoral playing field that seems tilted absurdly against it, resolutely refused to consider such defeatist talk.
Labour's sudden interest – or, for those with long memories, revival of interest – in electoral reform can be dated fairly precisely. I am bound by that old self-denying ordinance not to name names, but something happened on 27 June 2007. That something virtually ensured that the party was doomed at the forthcoming election; it was also when the party's policy began to shift.
That shift was completed by Gordon Brown's party conference speech in September. The Labour Party is now committed to changing the voting system, but only after the election, and after a referendum to approve the change. With surprisingly little fuss, the governing party now advocates a system called the Alternative Vote. Well, I call it a system: all it means is that voters would mark the ballot paper with numbers to show the order of their preferences rather than a single cross. It might make big differences to the results of an election. The main one being that the Liberal Democrats would win more seats than they would otherwise. But, because no one expects Labour to win the coming election, its promises of what it might do after that are not taken too seriously. As I say, for Labour, losing and electoral reform go together.
When Labour was last in opposition, for 18 years, much of the party was obsessed with changing the voting system. That obsession vanished like a half-forgotten dream after the landslide, leaving Roy Jenkins labouring in vain to devise a plan for reform that no one could remember at the time, let alone now.
So it is with a weary sense of having been here before that some of us survey the revival of the old Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, and the cross-party Make Votes Count: organisations that convey a sense of period as evocatively as the Pet Shop Boys or Depeche Mode – also still with us, slightly against expectation.
Yet while these great cycles have swung the Labour Party from one side of the battlefield to the other and then back again, the Conservatives have kept a steady course. It is possible that David Cameron may have once in his youth expressed a willingness to consider electoral reform – none of his friends can remember – but he does not countenance it now, and in that is utterly consistent with everything that has gone before in his party.
This is a great puzzle. At the last election, the Conservatives won 33 per cent of the vote, while the Government was re-elected with a substantial majority on just 36 per cent of the vote. It is well known that, in the coming election, Cameron's party needs to be about 10 percentage points ahead of Labour in its share of the vote to win. On most calculations, the 12-point average lead currently enjoyed by the Tories in the opinion polls would be only just enough to elect a Tory majority in the House of Commons. Yet the Tory response to this apparent unfairness is mildness itself. Cameron proposes to equalise the size of constituencies (as well as to cut the number of MPs by one-tenth).
At first sight, this would help to reduce the bias against the Tories. At present, Tory MPs tend to represent larger constituencies and Labour MPs smaller ones: that appears to be part of the explanation for the disparity between votes and seats. But it will actually make little difference.
The Boundary Commission is supposed to equalise constituencies anyway: that is its main objective. Yet it always lags behind population change, because it is working on out-of-date data and by the time the changes are made, the population has drifted further from Labour to Conservative areas. There has just been a boundary review: it shifted about 10 seats from the Labour to the Tories, but the bias in the system is almost as strong as before.
You might have thought that Cameron would be well advised to swallow his resistance to change and hint at a bit of flexibility. After all, it is possible that he may need Liberal Democrat votes in the Commons before the year is out. He was nice about the Lib Dems in his new year message, but did not go that far. Does that mean Brown is being clever and Cameron is living up to the Tory reputation as the stupid party?
In one sense, no. A new study reveals that the electoral system is not as unfair as it looks. An article by Galina Borisyuk, Ron Johnston, Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher in next month's issue of Parliamentary Affairs shows that equalising constituency sizes would not remove the pro-Labour bias. Professor Thrasher summed up: "Our research shows that equalising the electorates is not the key issue. Labour's real advantage currently stems from a better distributed vote – it acquires fewer surplus and wasted votes than its rivals."
It would seem that Tory and Labour voters behave differently. Tories turn out to vote wherever they are; Labour voters seem less likely to bother if they are in a safe seat, whether it is safe Labour or safe Tory, and are more motivated in marginal seats. That fits with what we know: that Tory voters tend to be older, and more likely to regard voting as a civic duty. The implication is that the voting figures conceal a hidden army of Labour supporters who would come out to vote if they thought it would make a difference.
It turns out, then, that – possibly by accident – the Conservatives are the intelligent party and Labour are the stupid ones. The Tories recognise that the system is not as unfair as it looks, while Labour is prepared to bring in reform the moment that it loses the power to do so.
But I wonder how long the Conservative Party will remain so phlegmatic about the way our voting system works if the outcome of the election is at all close.
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday. He blogs at independent.co.uk/eagleeyeReuse content