Lord Steel: First-past-the-post system does not work in our contests

'The Liberal Democrats need more high-profile figures to supplement Kennedy'
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The Independent Online

Looking hastily at the outcome of the election, there are lessons to be learnt by all three main parties. Tony Blair is entitled to bask in the joy of a record third victory for Labour, but he was right to strike a slightly humble note about "learning".

Looking hastily at the outcome of the election, there are lessons to be learnt by all three main parties. Tony Blair is entitled to bask in the joy of a record third victory for Labour, but he was right to strike a slightly humble note about "learning".

In particular, he should recognise that his government has been elected with the lowest support of the registered electorate (less than 25 per cent) of any in living memory.

Consequently, he should adopt a more generous and magnanimous approach to the other parties. (He would I am sure be appalled at one leaflet produced by his party HQ which urged people to vote Labour for the sole reason that Charles Kennedy would give Ian Huntley - the murderer of the Soham girls - the vote, even though votes for prisoners was a conference resolution, not in the manifesto).

Michael Howard must rue the day he agreed to allow a right-wing Australian guru to set the unpleasantly strident tone of his campaign which, despite gaining useful extra constituencies, left the Tories still flat-lining at under 33 per cent where they have been for the past three elections, and with an official Opposition of fewer seats than Michael Foot achieved for Labour in its disastrous 1983 election.

For the Liberal Democrats, cheer at the record 61 seats (and I write as one who sat for a while in a Commons party of just six) must be tempered by recognition that the net gains were largely at Labour's expense and we did not do as well as hoped against the Conservatives. In my view it was a mistake to allow the rather silly media phrase of "decapitation strategy" to take hold since it jarred with the tone of Charles Kennedy's excellent approach, as did sending him into Mr Howard's own seat. The demise of the Cocky Collins in Westmorland was especially pleasing.

Returning to my point about the Government's lack of actual popular support, any truly representative system of election would have given the Liberal Democrats more than 140 seats. The time to reignite the campaign for electoral reform should begin. Indeed, the Tories should be joining in, and as for Labour, Neil Kinnock already has come out in favour. By coincidence, I leave for Canada this afternoon to be a guest in the electoral referendum in British Columbia where a cross-party movement has grown weary of distorted results in the province's legislative assembly. As Tony Blair virtually admitted, the first-past-the-post system does not work properly in three-party contests.

The Liberal Democrats also need to study why they did so well in certain seats, and not others.

Our well-organised campaign at the centre has notched up not only substantial gains, but a large number of second places and good (more than 25 per cent) thirds, so Kennedy was right to say the era of three-party politics has arrived and is here to stay; the starting grid at the next election looks very different already.

The party did particularly well in Scotland, shooting past not only the Conservatives but the SNP to become clearly the second party to Labour in seats and votes, destroying the theory that dirtying our hands in government would prove damaging electorally.

The other two parties have leadership dilemmas, the Tories immediately, Labour more uncertainly. The Liberal Democrats have no such distractions, but they need to develop more high-profile figures to supplement the leader. Ming Campbell apart, the image tends to be of the one-man band.

The arrival of young and able new blood (much of it female) should help, as will Chris Huhne, economist and former MEP, to link with the splendid Vincent Cable to broaden our expertise on that front.

The manifesto was good as far as it went, but we need a higher and bolder profile on environmental issues, Europe, the future of Trident, international development, and the growing underclass at home. We have the people in Parliament of sufficient number and calibre to do that.

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