Leading Article: Blair must take the plunge on voting reform

Click to follow
In the privacy of dimly-lit Westminster backrooms, the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties are nervously embracing. For months there have been cautious fumblings between consenting adults as the two main opposition parties explore their common interest in, above all, the reform of British politics.

Of the two, the Liberal Democrats are the more ardent and radical partner - not surprising, perhaps, in the smaller party, with more to gain - while new Labour is just a little more prudish. On many of the issues, they basically agree. These include the importance of Scottish devolution, of restoring some of the power of local government, of introducing new procedures in the Commons and reforming the Lords, and incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. There are differences about the details, and in some cases they are important differences. But, as on other issues, such as education, there is enough common ground for common positions to be articulated, should the party leaders wish.

The great question, however, is voting reform for the Commons. It is what most separates most Liberal Democrat politicians from most Labour ones. In the end, if Labour remain committed to the current system of choosing MPs, then that party's relationship with the Liberal Democrats can be no more than a flirtation. Given that Paddy Ashdown's party has been losing ground in local government by-elections recently, some Labour people will advocate a swift parting once Tony Blair wins his hoped-for majority. And for the Lib Dems, alliance with Labour without significant progress towards a new voting system would be a sordid trap, leading nowhere. But what would be best for the country?

Voting reform is unlike many other issues in that it cannot be honestly disentangled from the interests of the parties. The system has disproportionately favoured the Conservative Party, and it is not surprising that Tories are disproportionately in favour of it. Proportional representation would most boost the Liberal Democrats; the Lib Dems are enthusiastic boosters of PR. Everyone claims to support one or other system on the basis of principle.

These principles, taken one by one, sound fine. There is the principle that an elected Member should look after a single constituency, acting as advocate for all voters - a principle which many MPs endorse. That goes, too, for the principle that all MPs should be basically equal in status, elected as local representatives by these same constituencies. Those principles, taken together, point inescapably to the existing first- past-the-post system. But they are incompatible with the principle that each vote should have a similar value, and with the principle that the nation's choice, party by party, should be reflected in the House of Commons. So how should we choose, particularly when we know that the conflicting principles are, anyway, a disguise for party advantage?

It is a question of democratic priorities. We believe that in a country whose binding belief is fairness, restoring belief in the fairness of the voting system matters more than defending one-seat constituencies at all costs. (One-seat constituencies may be a British tradition, but like many of our traditions they are more recent than many people realise: the Victorians fought in multi-member seats and so did some pre-1945 moderns.) We also think that a country of avid and shrewd consumers, accustomed to wide choice, is fed up with the black-or-white, him-or-him choice offered by most constituencies. Even in swing constituencies, taken especially seriously by the party strategists, the choices can seem absurd. Why should one have to choose between, say, an old-style piston-driven socialist and a smirking anti-European libertarian Thatcherite? Surely our judgements deserve more sophisticated options than that?

Across great swathes of the country, voters are in effect disenfranchised by being Labour or Tory supporters in the ''wrong'' areas; thus the leftishness of Scotland is exaggerated, and so is the Tory domination of the south. These exaggerations help to push the nation itself apart. So in principle (that word again) we favour changing the electoral system to one that reflects more clearly the preferences of voters and flattens out the apparent gulfs in opinion between different parts of the country.

What, though, of the sordid, behind-the-arras deals and coalitions that would be forged by a fairer system, in which one party would be much less likely to have an overall majority? These would happen, yes. They do in almost every case where PR is used. But defenders of the status quo should ask themselves this: what have the past few years in politics been but the revelation that the present party system is essentially about pacts and coalitions - only within the closed ranks of one or other party? The Conservative Party is the same coalition that, in other countries, exists between moderate Christian Democrats and hard-line nationalists.

Deals are made here, just as in Germany or the Netherlands, but they are made in the unlit corner of the whips' office, not out in the relative open, between party leaders. Part of the malaise of modern British politics is that legitimate political differences within the main parties are submerged, so that any discussion or expression of them emerges as ''split'' or ''division''. Would it be worse for our country if the pro- and anti-Brussels Tories argued openly from different parties? Or if the socialist opponents of Tony Blair had their own small party in the Commons, rather than hiding their feelings and sniping from inside the Labour coalition?

The same argument applies to those who say that a fairer voting system would give undue influence to small parties, such as the Liberal Democrats, since they could control the balance of parliamentary power. Today, the anti-Maastricht Tories are just such a small, influential balancing group. So are the Ulster Unionists. So, in different circumstances, are the pro- monetary union supporters of the Chancellor.

We do not think that supporters of the present system are knaves, or that PR is a path to Heaven; judging voting systems is about effects, not ethics. But we think a change would reinvigorate our democracy, breathe new life into the Commons, and could be achieved without destroying anything essential in British politics. Given the disposition of political forces, it might split the Conservatives while only splintering Labour, and thus benefit Tony Blair at the expense of John Major. But if most people became disillusioned with Labour, or hostile to European Union, the balance of advantage would alter.

But favouring a new electoral system, as we do, is only the half of it. The next question is to hang out your preference as to which alternative system you prefer. Here too, non-party principles are the surest guide. A ''list'' system, which keeps single-member constituencies but adds a new class of appointed MPs from party lists to even out the differences, would give even more power of patronage to the party hacks and apparatchiks. It would allow MPs into the Commons who, freed of the need to respond to constituents, would become full-time careerists, instead of part-time ones. We prefer constituencies of two or three MPs, giving voters a much bigger choice and allowing into Parliament many strong voices that are not heard there today.

First, however, the argument for change must be won. And the person whose mind most needs to change is Tony Blair. He is the fulcrum. Probably, he will be in a position to make this happen, or to prevent it. As he contemplates the odd mating dance going on in Westminster with the Liberal Democrats, he can afford to lift his eyes. This is not just a sordid grope between mutually interested parties. Between now and the election, Blair can move clearly towards supporting reform and help to bring about a fundamental shift in British politics. Or he can retreat to an essentially conservative position, and hope that he and his successors can find a way under first-past-the-post (frankly improbable) to banish Labour's record of defeat in the century to come.

That would be applauded by some Labour partisans as ''putting the party first''. In fact, it would be more likely to betray Labour's future. Given the likely effect of converting to voting reform - a Tory split, and a moderate centre-left alliance - Blair is in the happy position of seeing Labour's selfish sectional interests coincide with the interest of our democracy as a whole. He must, surely, be beginning to realise what he should do. The Labour leader is cautious, serious and straight. He is not a natural flirter with other parties in dark corners. But the time is close when he should do the decent thing: take a deep breath and lunge towards reform.