26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 8


Why Mr Mandelson's trick has not even deceived Mr Ashdown


Roy Jenkins is hard at work. The publi- cation date for his report on proportional representation has slipped back to allow him more time to refine his arguments and add elegancies to the prose style; the docu- ment is now expected around the end of October. But this is not enough to allay the Liberal party's anxieties.

The Liberal activists in Brighton this week are not interested in refinement or elegance. They want power and they are beginning to wonder whether Tony Blair has any intention of conceding it. Last week, Mr Ashdown assured us that he trusts Mr Blair. When politicians say that of one another in public, they are rarely telling the truth and Mr Ashdown has an obvious reason to be less than trusting.

If Mr Blair really did intend to recast the electoral system, he would already have taken steps to prepare public opinion; to create a momentum for change that would help him win a referendum campaign. But there is no momentum, only evasiveness, from No. 10; nor is Downing Street yet dis- couraging the Labour opponents of PR from staking out their ground. It may well be that Mr Blair's closest advisers have come to recognise that the arguments which appeared to impel them towards PR are much weaker than they seemed a year ago.

Then, Labour enthusiasm for PR was based on the party's historic electoral weak- ness and on the Jenkins thesis. Some Labour MPs had become so inured to defeat that even May 1997 had not reani- mated their electoral optimism. Labour should not be beguiled by its large majority, they counselled: look at 1945 and 1966. It was not worth preserving an electoral sys- tem which allowed Labour to win outright once every 20 years or so, while ensuring that the Tories were in power for three quarters of the time.

Roy Jenkins reinforced this pessimism. The 20th century had been a Tory century, his Lordship declared, because the centre- left had been divided, allowing a Tory minority to impose its will under a first- past-the-post electoral system. Change that system, and the 21st century would see the centre-left predominant and the Tories marginalised.

But during the past few months, these equations have altered, for several reasons. The first is electoral calculation. When even Margaret Thatcher now thinks that Mr Blair can win a second full term, Labour MPs are no longer feeling as if they had trespassed into power; one hears the occasional tentative revival of that Wilsoni- an phrase 'the natural party of govern- ment'. There has also been a re-examina- tion of the Jenkins thesis.

In a previous epoch, some Labour mod- ernisers will argue, we lost elections, not because we were doomed to, but because we deserved to. We always allowed our- selves to be saddled with unpopular poli- cies; we were nearly always telling the vot- ers that they could elect us, but only on our terms. It is hardly surprising that they usu- ally rejected us. But now that those days have gone, it is no longer a question of brief Labour interludes when Tory govern- ments become exhausted. Why should we not win power regularly — and what is the point of being in power if we have to share it with the Liberals?

That is the principal reason for the decline in Labour's enthusiasm for PR: the thought of being forced to treat the Liber- als as if they were a serious governmental force. Mr Blair would like to head a gov- ernment of the great and the good. He would be happy to replace Margaret Beck- ett, Ron Davies and Frank Dobson with Lord (Robert) Alexander of Weedon — a member of the Jenkins commission Menzies Campbell and Chris Patten. But Ming Campbell is the only Liberal MP who would qualify for membership of a great and good Cabinet. Most of the rest of the Liberals are small and no good; they are also obstreperous, prone to absurd enthusi- asms — and ungovernable. Mr Blair can always intimidate the third-raters in his own Cabinet, but under PR, the Liberals would probably be entitled to a quarter of the seats in the Cabinet. Some of their nomi- nees would not even be third-rate and Mr Blair would be unable to control them.

Peter Mandelson had anticipated this problem and had found a solution: the Alternative Vote (AV). Under AV, the vot- ers can also cast second preferences. Unless a candidate wins a majority of the first pref- erences, the defeated candidates are elimi- nated in ascending order and their votes redistributed according to second prefer- ence, until one candidate does win a major- ity. That way, thought Mr Mandelson, we can use Liberal votes to elect Labour gov- emments without ever having to invite Lib- eral MPs to join them.

It was a good try, but there are two prob- lems. The first is intellectual. AV is an even more extreme version of 'to the victor, the spoils' than are the present arrangements. Under AV, Mr Blair's 1997 majority would have been even larger, while if AV had been operating in 1983, Michael Foot's Labour party would have finished a bad third. Lord Jenkins's remit was to recom- mend a broadly proportional system and though he will not be recommending pure proportionality, his terms of reference exclude AV.

But in supporting AV, Mr Mandelson had also done something which had hither- to been thought to be impossible. He had underestimated Paddy Ashdown's intelli- gence. Even Mr Ashdown would not be prepared to accept a so-called PR system which would merely turn Liberal voters into Labour cannon-fodder.

But the Liberals could provide Mr Blair with an excuse for postponing the whole issue. The PM could only say that his gov- ernment's first constitutional priority must be to complete the Liberal party's unfin- ished work, and reform the House of Lords. Given the complexity of that task, electoral reform will have to wait. If that were to happen, Mr Ashdown would be furious. He might even carry out his threat to cease co-operating with the Labour gov- ernment. But that is hardly going to cause Mr Blair to lose sleep. Its practical conse- quences would be negligible: almost on a par with a cat-flea announcing that it intended to cease to co-operate with its feline host. That analogy may not be over- stated, for Mr Ashdown's withdrawal could even be beneficial to Labour. Mr Blair needs the Liberals to continue to draw off Tory votes and win Tory seats and it will be easier for them to do that if they can mas- querade as an independent political force.

But Mr Blair does not need that mas- querade Liberal force in his government. Over the decades, almost all of those who have supported PR have done so because they disapprove of elective dictatorships. That is no longer true of Tony Blair. Mar- garet Thatcher excepted, we have never had a prime minister who is so enthusiastic about elective dictatorship. So why should he rush to change a system which has given him his power?