LEADING ARTICLE:Blairism kept in proportion

Related Topics
Tony Blair has modernised and democratised the Labour Party, but he has never been hot on making the British electoral system more democratic. The word was that he disliked John Smith's promise to hold a referendum on proportional representation (PR) and was preparing to drop it. There was, he thought, little point in creating an electoral system that could strengthen the representation of smaller parties and so sap Labour's potential to win an outright majority.

So this weekend's news was welcome: Mr Blair now plans to stick to his predecessor's pledge and let voters decide whether they want to elect MPs by PR. Should we rejoice at the conversion of a leader whose party has traditionally preferred to slug it out one-to-one with the Tories? Is Mr Blair, like William Gladstone, one of those rare politicians who grows more radical with time?

Sadly, the truth is a little more complicated. First, of course, the Labour leader has offered only a plebiscite. He, apparently, remains opposed to PR. And his decision to back a referendum is certainly not born out of a love for multi-party democracy, nor indeed a wish to see the Liberal Democrats as a long-term force. It may suit Mr Blair's purposes to have the Lib Dems bag a good few (formerly Tory) seats. He might need Paddy Ashdown's support should Labour fail to win a large majority and he finds himself dealing with a small but truculent rump of left-wing rebels. But Mr Blair, in the long run, wants Labour to occupy Lib Dem territory as well as his own, and so he would prefer not to guarantee Mr Ashdown's party a long-term role by giving it the electoral reform it needs to have any prospect of wielding direct power.

So what is Mr Blair up to, so soon after Labour and the Lib Dems were lacerating each other's throats during last month's Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election? The logic goes like this: when the General Election finally comes, Labour's big lead in the polls could easily melt away. Mr Blair must, therefore, make sure that Labour remains seductive to Liberal Democrat voters. They must be persuaded to switch tactically to Labour in Tory marginals where the Lib Dems stand little chance. The bait is the promise of a referendum on PR.

In short, Mr Blair's agreement to support a referendum is a mark of Labour's continuing electoral weakness, not a sudden change in his beliefs. He may have counted the many ways in which such a referendum could eventually be sabotaged. We do not know what the question would be or who would frame it. If the Labour Party urged a "no" vote, the campaign for reform would probably be defeated, given Tory antipathy to PR.

So, like the relationship between Labour and the Lib Dems - which inevitably veers between intimacy and animosity in turns - expect positions on PR to shift constantly. In this area, we can be sure of just one thing: those voters who want a changed electoral system should not rely on Tony Blair to deliver it to them.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album