Paddy and the Holy Grail of voting reform

Liberal Democrat ratings in the opinion polls are on the up and up, but they desperately want Blair to back proportional representation
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The Independent Online
Tony Blair has already decided to back proportional representation in the referendum on electoral reform he has promised will take place during a first Labour term. He will not admit it before election day because to do so would be to forfeit the support of Rupert Murdoch's biggest selling newspaper, The Sun. Mr Blair knows that Murdoch's backing is short- term, and will last only long enough for the Tories to regroup, under a robustly Europhobe leader. If Murdoch feared that by introducing electoral reform Blair would split the Conservative Party (because a new pro-European left- wing Tory party would be sustainable with PR) and in the process deny its right wing the chance of taking over the whole party once again, he would not for a moment allow The Sun to back Labour.

Relax, Labour spin doctors. This is merely seductive - and no doubt baseless - speculation circulating among a few Liberal Democrats. But it helps to nourish the party's optimism that for all the negative vibes Blair will give out between now and polling day on PR, he will in the end back a reform. This would deliver the Lib Dems in a 2,002 election 116 seats on the same share of the vote - 18 per cent - that they won 20 seats with in 1992. Isn't that, the Lib Dems ask, Blair's best chance of a multi- term premiership? It would at last deliver an anti-Tory majority in the House of Commons which finally reflects the anti-Tory majority in the country at large?

This may be much too optimistic. It's likely that not even Blair knows whether he will back electoral reform. The Liberal Democrats are nevertheless entitled to speculate among themselves. Because it's increasingly clear they aren't going to be obliterated. Indeed the polls suggest that almost the only shift in public opinion since the election campaign started is an improvement in the Liberal Democrats' ratings. Paddy Ashdown hasn't been as big a media story as he was in 1992 because the conventional wisdom isn't, as it was for much of the 1992 campaign, that there will be a hung parliament in which Ashdown would hold the balance of power.

On his first visit to the party's West Country battleground last week, four national newspapers, The Sun, The Financial Times, the Daily Mail and the Express, weren't even aboard his bus. But in the real, rather than the Westminster, election the picture looks different. As happened in 1992, the more exposure Ashdown gets, especially on regional and national television, the better he is doing.

There is more to it than his campaigning skills, well-honed though they are. Ashdown is a good hustings speaker, perhaps the best of the three party leaders. It isn't every day you see a crowd of 100 in the main square of a sleepy town like Barnstaple actually clapping a passage on constitutional reform in a politician's speech. In Torridge and West Devon this week he was visibly frustrated that the farmers didn't give him a more hostile grilling over his policy on Europe. It's more that he appears to enjoy delivering a campaign theme relatively heroic in these ultra-prudent times: in favour of a 1p rise in income tax to pay for education and a new 50p top rate to reduce taxes on the lowest-paid; and resolutely pro-European.

More surprisingly, there is tentative evidence that it is working better than his critics thought. Partly because he is evidently enjoying his own robustness, and partly because some of the Blair effect - which always threatened to eclipse the Lib Dems altogether - is being offset by a greater willingness of more traditional Labour supporters to switch tactically to Ashdown in seats where he offers the best chance of getting rid of a Tory incumbent.

On Wednesday night, in a semi at the scruffier end of Twickenham, west London, where Vincent Cable, Shell Internation's chief economist, is fighting to gain London's most winnable seat, a Labour Party member not only promised to vote Lib Dem but even took a poster. My fleeting impression is that some Liberal Democrats are much less keen to emphasise the tax rises in Tory territory. But Ashdown does not shrink from doing so on national television, and Mr Cable insists that he enjoys arguing for them in well- heeled Twickenham wards. But he also says Labour supporters are showing perceptibly fewer of the inhibitions about switching that they might have had in 1992.

This may be what lies behind Gordon Brown's rather overheated attack on the Lib Dem spending plans yesterday. The plans have, after all, broadly withstood the heat of scrutiny from the likes of the Institute of Fiscal Studies. Labour don't mind switching in seats which only the Lib Dems can win. There is no evidence of such switching in the 75 or so Labour key seats where the Lib Dems are in third place. But it would be bad news for Labour if there was. It could now be time to give John Prescott a more prominent role to inject a bit of old-time Labour passion into Labour's campaign.

Ashdown's pro-Europeanism may not be doing him as much damage as some critics thought it would. On the one hand, Tories like Toby Jessel in Twickenham are using the party's support for the single currency for all it is worth. On the other, Lib Dem candidates can - and do - try to reassure Eurosceptics on the doorsteps that alone of the three parties, Ashdown's is promising a referendum not only on a single currency but on any big changes that result from the inter-governmental conference in Amsterdam - "the future of Europe" in doorstep-ese. Pro-Europeanism is part of a larger vision about what could happen after the election.

For Ashdown believes that Europe could yet be the catalyst for the fragmentation of British politics that he is looking to after the election. He sees a fragmentation into what he believes is naturally a five-party system - the Lib Dems, plus a Labour left and right, and a Tory left and right. His own party would function as a bulwark against the Labour left, perhaps ensuring that Blair can force through - say - British EMU membership against the Tory right and the Labour left. But for that fragmentation - the realignment which eluded Grimond, Thorpe and Steel - there needs first to be electoral reform. If Ashdown got less than 20 seats he might chuck it in, making way perhaps for Menzies Campbell, perhaps for the younger Charles Kennedy or Simon Hughes.

But that no longer looks so likely: Ashdown has exuberantly said that his successor "is still at school". His tax commitments could yet backfire badly in the deep privacy of the ballot box. But the evidence that their support is holding up well in the Tory target seats is fairly persuasive. It no longer makes sense to see the election as do or die for Ashdown and his party. If Blair wins, it's the referendum on PR that will truly determine the Lib Dems' future.