Politics in proportion kills passion

Cut and thrust for democracy
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The Independent Online
Liberals and Labour campaigned as two separate parties in the May election - no discussion of coalition or even a shared agenda. In some places the sparks flew.

We were all misled. Since the election the two of them have cosied up, getting closer and closer, even though Tony Blair's majority is so big he has no conceivable need of Paddy's minions.

What's the plot? Most governments come to office with a big idea (even if it eventually becomes mere survival). Before the May election we were told Labour's was to make a difference, to make things better. We now know the real big idea was in the closet during the election. It turns out to be nothing less than refashioning the British constitution to remove confrontational politics for ever.

The Liberals have long held that the biggest defect of British politics is passion. They don't like argument. They see heated exchanges across the floor, sharp questioning, the cut and thrust of party politicking across the chamber of the House of Commons as problems. They have long sought round tables to replace that square table dividing two sides, preferring consensus to decision, compromise to principle.

Now we have a government which thinks the same way.

Labour has come out for PR but why does it want to change a system from which it has done so well? The Prime Minister has to let us into his thinking - especially since proportional representation was hardly a central feature of Labour's general election pitch. Is it that he thinks the 20th century was disfigured by too many Conservative administrations, some of which (like his government) were elected on a minority of the vote? His alliance with the Liberals is intended to find a way of counting votes that would prevent another Conservative majority in all but the biggest of landslide years. He is - we surmise - seeking the elixir of permanent power but fiddling with the system, rather than mastering the art of perpetual popularity.

He brings in sight the death of many of the salient characteristics of our democracy. Parliament is all the better for being angry, funny, spontaneous, personal, cutting, even unkind. It is a test of mettle and men, and of the persuasiveness of policy. If you can convince Parliament, in the teeth of strong opposition, then you have a good chance of convincing the nation.

Our system thrives on uncertainties. At no point during the 18 years of Conservative rule could we be sure we would win again. At no point - under present rules - can Mr Blair relax knowing he is guaranteed another term, whatever the current size of his majority. If you alter the voting system much of that uncertainty is removed.

Parliament would be insipid if we had to try to agree all the while. The nation would soon feel bored and cheated. Some say Prime Minister's Questions are too boisterous and noisy. Yet any constituent coming to Parliament wants tickets for precisely that confrontation between the big men, not for some worthy debate. Television does not want to follow politicians chanting accord in words so loose and empty they permit consent by all.

I read occasionally that Tony Blair is not keen on new voting systems. Sources say that he shares popular scepticism about PR. This is hard to believe. He is powerful; he heads the government. If he can single-handedly overturn a manifesto promise on tobacco sponsorship, it is hard to believe he would allow PR for Wales, Scotland and the European Parliament if he was against it.

We have to treat his enthusiasm for PR seriously. He has appointed Lord Jenkins, who is a staunch campaigner for the abolition of first-past-the- post elections. Lord Jenkins's "inquiry" is neither independent nor academic. Had the Prime Minister been genuinely undecided, he would have appointed a High Court judge or someone of no known view or affiliation in order to carry out an impartial review.

Labour delights in saying it embodies the new consensus as it pushes through devolution, PR, the introduction of the European Convention on Human Rights and so on.

But I have no wish to join Mr Blair's new consensus, if indeed it is one. It is our job, the job of William Hague and his team, to expose Lib- Lab policies when we think them secretive and wrong or muddled. (For example, in showing how Mr Blair told the nation only half the story when before the election he said he wanted a different relationship with Europe and devolved government in the regions.) The government of this country will be the better for that disclosure.

What he really meant - we can now see - was removing substantial responsibility from our government and accountability to our Parliament to "independent" quangos and secret meetings of the Council of Ministers.

His new model dispenses with Parliament and its role of demanding from ministers that they account for their actions. PR is his magic ingredient: the project is nothing less than to abolish opposition. Lib-Lab success would make a mighty dent in our democracy.

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