The mad woman has gone, but don't be shy of reform: Political Commentary

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The Independent Online
IN THE last few years, most markedly under the leadership of John Smith, the Labour Party has been shy of announcing what it would do in government. There have been perfectly good reasons for this reticence. The party came to pieces on tax not only at the last election but at the one before. Throughout the 1980s Lord Callaghan, Lord Healey or both were liable to fire a broadside at whatever cobbled defence policy might be keeping perilously afloat at any given moment. Ministers are now reduced to accusing their opponents of being 'muddled' or 'self- contradictory' when those Labour politicians have not committed themselves to anything.

Up to a point this policy of letting the Government make the mistakes - of which the late leader was such a strong supporter - is not only understandable but healthy. Over defence, for instance, it never ceased to amaze me that assorted Bills and Berts from the unions, together with some arts graduates from our ancient universities, assisted by omniscient columnists, could beat themselves into a dialectical frenzy over some weapons system or other of which they did not possess the first understanding. It was as if someone who could not mend a fuse or explain the workings of the internal combustion engine had set himself up as a consulting engineer.

These disputes are now mercifully at an end. Indeed, Labour seems to be established as the party united on increased military expenditure. Whether this is an altogether wise posture to adopt or not, it is a mistake to think that you must never be committed on anything. Promises - 'pledges' in the argot of the People's Party - can create excitement. If the political classes accept the election of a Labour government as inevitable, it certainly does not become so, but it becomes more likely. Lord Wilson exploited this mood masterfully in 1963-4. It remains to be seen whether Mr Tony Blair can do the same in the longer period which he has at his own disposal.

One field which he can usefully till is constitutional reform. This always used to be a large item of policy with the Liberals - though you had to buy up virtually the entire Liberal Bookshop to discover what it was. The Liberal Democrats are snappier but are not going to form a government. The Conservatives have given up, in this area as in others. Mr John Major is, like Lady Thatcher before him, a traditionalist. She pretty well killed the subject as one suitable for polite conversation.

The Labour Party has been equally conservative, except over Northern Ireland (where the party is theoretically committed to a united Ireland) and, more recently, over national or regional assemblies. But over the House of Lords, proportional representation and a Bill of Rights the party has usually stood four square with the diehards, even if for different reasons. Since the mid-1980s, however, the terms of constitutional trade have changed. The basic cause for this change lay in the Thatcher Terror. The framers of Charter 88 were certainly motivated by more abstract considerations as well. But what gave the movement its initial impetus was the conviction that we were to be ruled in perpetuity by a unicameral legislature under the sole control of a mad woman.

Happily, the woman concerned disappeared in a puff of smoke in November 1990, so disconcerting a generation of academic analysts who had repeated with the utmost confidence that a British prime minister with good health and an adequate parliamentary majority was impregnable. But the unease persists, even under a prime minister who is clearly not mad, though it may be more difficult to say exactly what he is. The consequence is that the Labour Party is now committed to a prudent amount of constitutional reform.

On the House of Lords the proposal is not to abolish it but to confine the right to vote to life peers, together with all peers of first creation. The last concession has been tacked on to avoid hurting the feelings of the hereditary peers Lords Whitelaw and Tonypandy (formerly Mr Speaker Thomas). On first hearing of this proposal, I thought that scores of other less deserving lords would be admitted to the company of the elect on the coat-tails of the two viscounts just mentioned. Closer examination, however, proves this fear to be unfounded. Only nine others are hereditary peers of first creation: Lords Aldington, Colyton, Eccles, Erroll, Gladwyn, Glendevon, Margadale, Sherfield and Snowdon: six former Conservative politicians, two former diplomats and a photographer.

They are unlikely to give any trouble. At the same time we should not forget that the upper House is not only a sunset home but a hornets' nest. Any proposals for change can unite in opposition extreme left and extreme right with the Queen, who gets upset when these matters are under consideration, feeling that her own position is somehow under threat.

Electoral reform presents perhaps greater difficulties. The party is committed to a referendum on proportional representation. Shadow Ministers say they will honour this commitment. But this will not prove an altogether simple, still less speedy, process.

The party's own recent Plant Report will be set aside. It was on the commission leading to this report that Mrs Margaret Beckett successfully stood firm against any true form of proportional representation, notably the single transferable vote. Instead the committee of workers, peasants and intellectuals under Lord Plant came out by a narrow majority in favour of an untried system called the 'supplementary vote'. I have attempted to secure further and better particulars, so far without success. This is hardly surprising, for the system in question was devised by Mr Dale Campbell- Savours. As far as I can make out, anyone getting over 50 per cent wins. But, with the other candidates, second preferences are taken into account. It would have been more honest to embrace the alternative vote.

It does not matter because Mr Blair, if he is ever prime minister, intends to appoint a royal commission or committee of inquiry to investigate various forms of PR. Presumably the investigating body will also make a recommendation. It will then be up to the cabinet to accept this new system, to propose a different one or to recommend no change. The electorate will then decide. I foresee rows ahead, though the whole process can be spun out indefinitely.

Labour's third constitutional innovation is not likely to cause so much trouble. This is to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into United Kingdom law. The UK is already bound by the convention as a treaty in international law. We are well used to having our courts' decisions overturned by European courts. European law is already supreme. Incorporation of the convention has been the most respectable of causes for many years now. Though the other constitutional causes are potentially more troublesome, Mr Blair should not be shy of talking about them. At the very least they make his party more interesting.