PR would save the Tories' bacon

The biggest U-turn of all could turn the tables on Labour. John Curtice advises a Conservative rethink
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The Independent Online
Wanted: Political stratagem for general election. Must cause split among Opposition, deny Labour victory and save seats of as many Conservative MPs as possible. Reply urgently to Mr J Major, 10 Downing St, SW1.

Dear Mr Major,

I am responding to your advertisement in the latest edition of the Huntingdon Times.

Your situation does look rather dire. Two New Year polls confirm you are still as much as 19 points behind Labour. And that is after the figures have been "adjusted" to overcome the mistakes the polls made last time. Yet another attempt last week to launch recovery was scuppered by your familiar enemies: scandal and backbench rebellion.

You have been pinning your hopes of recovery on the economy. The economy is indeed in far better shape than five years ago. But ever since "Black Wednesday", the public refuse to give you any credit. They even turned their nose up at the tax cuts the Chancellor announced in his Budget. Unfortunately, you cannot expect the economy to save you.

The Eurosceptics think they have an answer. Come out against a single currency and wrap yourself in the flag, they say. But as you know only too well, that would simply worsen your party's interminable European divisions.

Indeed, the way your colleagues continue to pick at their European wounds makes me wonder whether they realise just how devastating a defeat they could be heading for. You might improve a bit more on your current position in the polls. You have closed the gap on Labour by nine points over the last 18 months. At that rate, you can expect at most to knock another four points off by May. But that would still leave you with little more than a third of the vote, 15 points behind Labour. The standard "swingometer" says that this means you would be left with just 202 MPs. As many as one in three of your colleagues is seemingly heading for oblivion.

The trouble is, things could be even worse. You will have noticed Labour's vote actually slipped a little in its Barnsley East citadel in last month's by-election. Yet in places you try to hold - such as South East Staffordshire - Labour's vote shoots up. Local elections tell the same story, too - your vote has fallen most in your own seats.

That could easily cost you another 30 MPs, leaving you with little more than 170. Nearly half of your fellow MPs' careers would be terminated in your party's worst defeat since 1906. That would hardly do much for your personal place in the history books.

So what can you do? I have a simple but bold suggestion. On your return from India announce that before you call the election you will pass a Bill to introduce proportional representation!

I realise this must sound ridiculous. Only last week you called PR "gerrymandering" the constitution. Voters should be the ones to decide the government, you said, not the Liberal Democrats. Fine rhetoric, but no substitute for clear thinking. You owe it to your party to take a hard look at whether your opposition to PR continues to serve your party's interests.

Let's go back to the election scenario a moment. I have suggested you could end up with just 170 seats on 33 per cent of the vote: 170 seats is little more than a quarter of the Commons. In other words you could win a smaller proportion of seats than you do of votes.

Switch to PR and your prospects immediately look brighter - more like 210 seats. Usually asking a government to introduce PR is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. In your case you would be pigs opting to save their own bacon.

The existing system may have served you well enough up to now. But at the next election it threatens to turn a calamity into a crisis. Impossible? Well, just remember that in local government the impossible has already happened.

You now have fewer councillors than the Liberal Democrats. They have not won more votes than you. Rather they have been better at winning votes where it counts. You have caught the old Liberal disease of coming second everywhere and first nowhere, just as the Liberal Democrats themselves have started to shake it off.

And think what impact your manoeuvre could have on the Opposition. In one stroke you could deny Tony Blair the fruits of victory, break up the increasingly cosy relationship between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and cause a split in the Labour Party.

Under the current system, Mr Blair looks set to cruise to victory, with an overall majority of almost 200. He would be free to reform the constitution as much as he wants, and in so doing help keep your party out of office for a generation.

Introduce PR and all that changes. True, Mr Blair might still have nearly half the vote which might be sufficient to give him a small majority. But you know only too well how governing with a small majority can be a poisoned chalice.

With any luck you will force him into the hands of the Liberal Democrats. It is true that Paddy Ashdown has said he will take the first opportunity to vote you out of office. But would that resolve really withstand the introduction by you of his party's pet project? It might well be your door he knocks on to do a deal after the election. And you might find him helping to keep you in office until May, too.

Tony Blair has backed a referendum on PR, but he is being very coy about declaring his personal view, despite pressure from the Liberal Democrats for him to pledge support. This is hardly surprising, since his party is split down the middle. Your move would force him to declare his hand. Whichever way he jumps is likely to cause him trouble - expect to see Labour MPs in both lobbies. Most likely he will opt to remain "unpersuaded" of the case for PR - and so rupture his new relationship with the Liberal Democrats.

So all is not necessarily lost. You might be accused of a spectacular U-turn, but another one of those can hardly do you more harm than the ones you have made already.

Naturally, you would have to educate your backbenchers rapidly in the new realities of electoral life. Well, Hugh Dykes would surely be willing to help you. And I assume your colleagues are as eager as you to do what is best for the party.

Yours sincerely,

A Wellwisher

The writer is deputy director of the ESRC Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends (Crest).