Steve Richards: They may not realise it now, but a fairer voting system could be in Labour's interest

As long as the progressive vote is split, there is always space for the Tories to come through the middle
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The Independent Online

When William Hague was leader of his party, he warned a close associate that Tony Blair had a fiendishly clever plan. Mr Hague suggested that if Mr Blair followed through his plan the Conservatives would be doomed to eternal opposition. He was referring to Mr Blair's pledge to hold a referendum on electoral reform. When the Prime Minister dropped the idea, Mr Hague was delighted. He told his close associate at a later date: "Well, I thought Mr Blair had a plan to destroy the Conservative Party, but obviously he changed his mind".

Mr Hague's assessment when Mr Blair presided over a landslide during his first term is revealing. Even though the Conservatives had been slaughtered under the existing first-past-the-post system, he was deeply worried about a change.

I would be surprised if many Conservatives were minded to campaign for such a change now the Labour government no longer has such a landslide. Indeed, I have yet to meet a Conservative MP, even the most glumly introspective, who seeks such a reform. Like Mr Hague, they have made a crude and probably accurate calculation that it is not in their interests.

I am not being cynical in pointing out that parties act out of self-interest in relation to constitutional reform. No leader is going to be foolishly altruistic: "Friends, this will keep us out of power for decades, but I am changing the voting system to restore trust in politics."

The Liberal Democrats want a change in the voting system partly because they would be the main beneficiaries. When senior Labour MPs defected to the old SDP in the 1980s, they became sudden enthusiasts for proportional representation, having previously supported the current system. When Labour lost for the fourth time in 1992, a significant section of the party, including Neil Kinnock, wanted a change in the voting system.

As Tony Blair observed in the mid 1990s, some of them wanted a change because they feared they could not win under first past the post. They used it as an excuse for avoiding more difficult choices over the direction of policy. Mr Blair made those comments in an interview with me in July 1996 when he was supposedly flirting with the idea of PR. I never thought he was close to favouring a change. He was flirting with the Liberal Democrats at the time, which is a slightly different matter.

Similarly, the Conservatives have bigger matters to resolve. They are about to embark on a six-month leadership contest in which they have the choice of simply enjoying themselves and the media attention or debating seriously their purpose as a political party. At the moment, the signs are mixed. Tory MPs are certainly enjoying themselves again. I have not seen them look so excited since they lost the previous election. Soon they will be taking part in a contest where a Conservative will definitely win.

But there are also indications that some of them recognise the election result was another heavy defeat. I sense Michael Howard realises this too, and his upbeat appearance in recent days is more a result of relief than a misguided euphoria. His most interesting move in relation to the new Shadow Cabinet is Francis Maude's appointment as the new party chairman. Mr Maude was a close ally of Michael Portillo. Deliberately, Mr Howard has placed a leading moderniser at the heart of the party. Mr Maude does not want to be leader, but knows what type of leader he seeks.

The stakes are higher in the forthcoming leadership contest because it is just possible that the winner will become prime minister. This is where Mr Hague's observation about the prospects for proportional representation is revealing from Labour's perspective.

If Mr Hague thought it was in Labour's interests after 1997 to change the voting system, the case is incomparably stronger now. Labour polled only 36 per cent of the vote last week, much lower than Harold Wilson when he secured a tiny majority in October 1974.

The only significant movement in the election was from Labour to the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps it was a one- off protest and Labour's supporters will return at the next election. But as long as the progressive vote is split between two parties, there is always space for the Conservatives to come through the middle as they did throughout the 1980s. Gordon Brown first raised the need for a progressive consensus during his conference speech last year. The phrase has caught on. Mr Blair uses it, too. It is possible that Labour alone becomes the vehicle for a new progressive consensus as it was in 1997 and to some extent in 2001. If polls suggest the Liberal Democrats are falling back and Labour is steaming ahead, the issue of electoral reform will not resurface.

Currently, ministers face more daunting problems as they grapple with a fragile economy, the reform of public services, the EU constitution, pensions, the council tax and other complex matters. They are not under immediate pressure to act. In a curious way, Britain's wacky voting system delivered the result most voters seemed to want, a Labour government with a significantly reduced majority. For now, ministers worry about other issues.

But they worry in an uneasy context. In the election campaign, the build-up to the war against Iraq was more of an issue than the conflict and the aftermath, the secrecy surrounding the legal advice about the war and the degree to which Cabinet and Parliament was consulted. The issue of trust, although ill defined, shaped the bleak campaign.

In the mid 1990s, Gordon Brown looked on with a mixture of scepticism and indifference as Mr Blair formed close relations with Paddy Ashdown and Roy Jenkins. During this early stage of his leadership, it was Mr Blair who was viewed as an enthusiastic constitutional reformer. As it turned out, Mr Blair implemented some important reforms but without obvious enthusiasm. In the build-up to the war, he was content to rely on constitutional precedent - governments do not publish the legal advice - as if this was a powerful argument in itself.

Now those close to Mr Brown say he would deal with the issue of political trust as he and Mr Blair once did when Labour was not trusted to run the economy. Their response to economic mistrust was to make the Bank of England independent and implement the Conservatives' spending plans. It will be one of the many ironies of the Blair/Brown relationship if it is Mr Brown who proves to be the more ardent advocate for sweeping constitutional reform.

I see no sign that electoral reform is on his agenda, but if the progressive wing were to remain precariously fractured a fairer voting system would be a way of bringing it back together again. An alarmed Mr Hague recognised this when the Conservatives were in an even weaker position than they are now.