Labour could outflank the Lib Dems on electoral reform

The next Labour leader needs to be bold about PR.

Today's Queen's Speech, outlining the 18-month legislative programme of Britain's first coalition government since the Second World War, is likely to include a promise of a referendum on voting reform as part of the proposed parliamentary reform bill.

Nick Clegg and his Lib Dem colleagues in the coalition cabinet will be spinning the referendum pledge as a great victory for the party. But, of course, the referendum will be on the Alternative Vote (AV), and not on a fully proportional system, which the Liberal Democrats have campaigned for since time immemorial (and to which they were committed in their own manifesto). Plus, their Conservative allies in government are free to campaign against AV during the referendum campaign.

So -- surprise, surprise! -- Nick Clegg has been reaching out to his scorned lover, the Labour Party, as he begins his personal campaign to convince the electorate of the need for electoral reform. Here is the Deputy Prime Minister on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning:

No one should be surprised that, as a Liberal Democrat, I passionately believe that our electoral system at the moment doesn't work and it can be made fairer, so that people's views are more prom-- . . . you know, are better reflected in the House of Commons. That's of course what we'll campaign on. And yes I will be reaching out to people from other parties -- not just the Conservative Party but the Labour Party as well -- saying if you believe in a different kind of politics, when it comes to a referendum, let's all join together to try and argue the case for change.

The Labour Party has two options. Either it can junk its own manifesto commitment to the Alternative Vote, in an act of petulance, and join the Tories in campaigning against change, thereby embarrassing, isolating and "punishing" the Lib Dems for their alliance with the Conservatives. This might be the preferred strategy of an instinctive first-past-the-poster like Ed Balls.

Or it can be much bolder than it has been in the past, ditch its tribalism and conservatism on electoral reform, and (belatedly) push for out-and-out proportional representation, in the form of AV+ (as recommended by Roy Jenkins back in 1998). At a stroke, Labour would seize the constitutional high ground, attract disillusioned Lib Dem voters into the fold, outflank Clegg, Huhne et al, and exacerbate tensions inside the Con-Dem coalition.

This is the view of the former home secretary Alan Johnson (why are you not standing, Alan??), writing in Sunday's Observer:

The new government is committed to a referendum on a new voting system. It will contain two options -- the current first-past-the-post system and the Alternative Vote. It will be the first time in the history of our democracy that its citizens will have a say in how their votes are translated into political power.

What possible argument can there be against adding the recommendation of the Independent Commission on the Voting System, AV+, as a third option? It retains the constituency link, extends voter choice and is broadly proportional.

Johnson adds: "I will certainly be making the case within my own party to submit legislative amendments to that effect."

Brothers Miliband -- are you listening to AJ? Please do so. You, your party and your country have much to gain.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Will the House of Lords block Brexit?

Process, and a desire to say "I told you so" will be the real battle lines. 

It’s the people versus the peers, at least as far as some overly-excited Brexiteers are concerned. The bill to trigger Article 50 starts its passage through the House of Lords today, and with it, a row about the unelected chamber and how it ought to behave as far as Brexit is concerned.

This week will, largely, be sound and fury. More peers have signed up to speak than since Tony Blair got rid of the bulk of hereditary peers, triggering a 200-peer long queue of parliamentarians there to rage against the dying of the light, before, inevitably, the Commons prevailed over the Lords.

And to be frank, the same is ultimately going to happen with Article 50. From former SDPers, now either Labour peers or Liberal Democrat peers, who risked their careers over Europe, to the last of the impeccably pro-European Conservatives, to committed Labour and Liberal politicians, there are a number of pro-Europeans who will want to make their voices heard before bowing to the inevitable. Others, too, will want to have their “I told you so” on record should it all go belly-up.

The real battle starts next week, when the bill enters committee stage, and it is then that peers will hope to extract concessions from the government, either through defeat in the Lords or the threat of defeat in the Lords. Opposition peers will aim to secure concessions on the process of the talks, rather than to frustrate the exit.

But there are some areas where the government may be forced to give way. The Lords will seek to codify the government’s promise of a vote on the deal and to enshrine greater parliamentary scrutiny of the process, which is hard to argue against, and the government may concede that quarterly statements to the House on the process of Brexit are a price worth paying, and will, in any case, be a concession they end up making further down the line anyway.

But the big prize is the rights of EU citizens already resident here.  The Lords has the advantage of having the overwhelming majority of the public – and the promises of every senior Leaver during the referendum campaign – behind them on that issue. When the unelected chamber faces down the elected, they like to have the weight of public opinion behind them so this is a well-chosen battleground.

But as Alex Barker explains in today’s FT, the rights of citizens aren’t as easy to guarantee as they look. Do pensions count? What about the children of EU citizens? What about access to social security and health? Rights that are easy to protect in the UK are more fraught in Spain, for instance. What about a British expat, working in, say, Italy, married to an Italian, who divorces, but wishes to remain in Italy afterwards? There is general agreement on all sides that the rights of Brits living in the rest of the EU and citizens of the EU27 living here need to be respected and guaranteed. But that even areas of broad agreement are the subject of fraught negotiation shows why those “I told you sos”  may come in handy sooner than we think.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.