Leading article: The neglect of the bigger picture

Related Topics

MPs return to Westminster today and head straight into what could prove to be one of the defining battles of this Parliament. The first Commons debate will be on the Coalition Government's bill to stage a referendum on the Alternative Vote next May.

Despite backing AV in its manifesto at the last election, Labour plans to vote against the bill, arguing that the Government is trying to sneak through plans to gerrymander constituencies in favour of the Conservative Party at the same time. In an interview with this newspaper today, the favourite for the Labour leadership, David Miliband, accuses the Coalition of engaging in "student politics" by packaging the bill for a referendum on AV with a move to reduce the number of MPs (from 650 to 600) and to equalise the size of constituencies.

The bill, as it stands, is certainly not perfect. But Mr Miliband is wrong to identify the inclusion of constituency reform as a great point of principle. It is indeed likely that the Conservatives would benefit from the equalisation of the size of constituencies. But the argument that this is gerrymandering is hyperbolic; especially since the present system benefits the Labour Party (whose MPs disproportionately come from smaller seats).

And the shortcomings of the bill – such as the use of lists of registered voters rather than the adult population to draw up new seats and the senseless requirement that no constituency can be more than 5 per cent greater or smaller than the national average – can all be fixed through constructive amendments. There is no good reason to reject the entire bill.

Labour no doubt calculates that it will be putting maximum pressure on the Government by adopting a stance of maximum opposition. If the Liberal Democrats do not get their referendum on voting reform (their key demand in post-election negotiations) the Coalition will come under huge strain as the third party's MPs and activists ask what the point is of their partnership with the Conservatives.

But Labour is neglecting the bigger picture. The Party will look monumentally cynical if it votes to head off a referendum that it was campaigning for as recently as May. It will be joining forces with the reactionary right of the Tory Party, which also wants to defeat the bill, although for different reasons. And if Labour helps to scupper this bill, it will jeopardise its chance of forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats at the next election. Worst of all, Labour will be, implicitly, allying itself with a discredited electoral system.

The Labour Party has commissioned its own research on the effect of the bill which suggests the Liberal Democrats would suffer more than any other party in the redrawing of constituency boundaries. This has prompted Jack Straw, who is leading the Labour charge against the bill, to argue that the Liberal Democrats are like "turkeys voting for Christmas". But what the Liberal Democrats understand – and Mr Straw plainly does not – is that this is a once in a generation chance to begin the reform of our flawed voting system.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, argued at the last election that AV was "a miserable little compromise". And so it is, when compared to a truly proportional electoral system. But it is a beginning.

Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats are justified in their analysis that this bill is the best means available for advancing electoral reform. They are right not to make the best the enemy of the good. Meanwhile, Labour is confusing tactics with strategy and, if the party continues down this path of short-sighted opposition, it risks finding itself on the wrong side of progressive history.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative / Forklift Driver

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Through a combination of excell...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company are looking for a ...

Recruitment Genius: Service Plan Champion

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a Service Plan Champi...

Recruitment Genius: Service Plan Champion

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a Service Plan Champi...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Daily catch-up: the Labour leadership election hasn’t yet got to grips with why the party lost

John Rentoul
Kennedy campaign for the Lib Dems earlier this year in Bearsden  

Charles Kennedy: A brilliant man whose talents were badly needed

Baroness Williams
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific