Labour may gamble on electoral reform

Tony Blair is determined not to repeat one of Kinnock's big blunders, argues Donald Macintyre
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No one who worked in Neil Kinnock's election team will ever forget that dreadful last Monday evening of the 1992 campaign when Alec Dunn, a 20-year-old elector from the super-marginal constituency of Bolton, asked the Labour leader "where you personally stand" on proportional representation, and painfully skewered him in front of a national Granada TV audience by refusing to give up when he waffled in reply. As follows:

Kinnock: "Yes, well I'd be delighted to tell you ... but not at this juncture." Laughter. "Oh, I'd be delighted to. But what I do ..."

Dunn: "It's either yes or no, isn't it?"

Kinnock: "Yeah, sure. Well as you may know Mr Dunn ..."

Dunn: "Well, either you do agree with it or you don't agree with it."

Kinnock: "Well fine, ah no, it isn't quite as simple as that, not where I'm sitting."

And so on, too painful to repeat.

Liberal Democrats often talk about that evening when they argue, as they are currently doing with ever greater intensity, that Tony Blair will have to declare before polling day what he intends to recommend in the referendum on electoral reform which he has promised. A referendum, however desirable, is, as Paddy Ashdown again put it yesterday, no substitute for an opinion. If the people are to be asked to decide whether they want the biggest change to the electoral system since women got the vote then what the prime minister of the day would himself think is quite a pertinent matter.

And do not be deluded: it is precisely a pre-election commitment by Tony Blair to recommend change to Britain's first past the post system that the Liberal Democrats want. It's that which will be the glittering outcome of the "secret" talks that have been going on between the two parties since they were announced at a press conference more than two months ago. The mechanics of introducing legislation of devolution, on reforming the House of Lords, on a Freedom of Information Act are serious topics. Some of it will be awe-inspiringly difficult to get through the House of Commons and an inter-party agreement on how to do it would be well worth having. But Blair's agreement to go into the election committed to changing the system by which MPs are elected is what they really want.

It's tempting, therefore, to buy the Liberal Democrats' argument that if only to avoid a repeat of the Bolton fiasco Blair will firmly declare his hand before the general election in favour of changing the system. There is a powerful case for doing so. By deciding in favour of change to a more proportional system before the election, he eliminates the risk that if he does so after the election he is seen to be doing so merely for reasons of expediency.

What's more, a commitment to change could mean no more than the the Alternative Vote system which would certainly give more seats to the Liberal Democrats but which is not fully proportional.

But for all the spate of weekend reports that something very big has happened already in the inter-party talks, it hasn't. Blair has certainly started thinking about electoral reform. But some of those very close to him still insist that the likeliest outcome is that he will say again publicly that he "is not persuaded" of the case for change, and that the Liberal Democrats would be unwise to try to bounce him into a declaration to the contrary. Finally, Blair isn't going to get himself into the mess that Kinnock did in 1992 because he can hide behind his commitment to hold a referendum on electoral change.

But the focus on what Blair will or won't do before the election also misses a bigger point: that there is now a dynamic for a seismic change in the British political system. In theory, the Liberal Democrats won't agree to a formal co-operation pact without a commitment to House of Commons electoral change. In practice, senior Liberal Democrats are already talking more emolliently about a "sliding scale" of co-operation. And those talks are already developing: it's likely that they will map out a detailed timetable, and the range of options that a referendum would offer. It is a near certainty that Labour will commit itself before the general election to PR for the European elections in 1999. Such a move wouldn't, of course, satisfy Ashdown. But it would strengthen his representation in Strasbourg and make it extremely tempting for pro-European Tories to test the water for a new party by campaigning on a separate platform.

And that is a clue to the big picture. Because in talking about a new politics of the centre and centre left, Blair is not just making a point about Paddy Ashdown. He believes that Kenneth Clarke also has more in common with him than with most of the 1990s Tory party.

In theory a long-term Blair hegemony could be sustained without electoral reform; in practice it's much likelier that it needs a change to the electoral system to flourish. Clarke is much likelier to split the Tories by forming a pro-European party than he is to defect to Labour. John Major was exactly wrong yesterday to say that PR would offer less choice rather than more: it offers the chance of several more parties and a much more calibrated choice for the electorate. It's still possible that Blair will advocate change before the election. But it's a much safer bet that he will do so when it comes to the referendum itself.