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Labour’s complacency of power

The party must seize the initiative from Clegg and support electoral reform

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, has had a good few weeks.

They began with his strong and vocal leadership over the issue of Gurkha repatriation, in which he was helped, it must be said, by Joanna Lumley’s “magic”. Then, on 17 May, he delivered the fatal blow to the Speaker, Michael Martin. In this, Clegg was brave, the only party leader to dare to eschew the sort of parliamentary politesse that alienates ordinary voters.

Indeed, the Liberal Democrats stand out as the one party with a consistent commitment to the kind of constitutional change long called for by the New Statesman. In the wake of the parliamentary expenses scandal, however, the case for far-reaching reform is finally being made in government, notably by the Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband.

The Guardian may have reported breathlessly that David Cameron is “considering” fixed-term parliaments; but Miliband’s comprehensive proposals for modernising parliament, though less trumpeted, in fact go much further.

Now we have a call for a referendum on proportional representation from Alan Johnson (one of the few leading politicians, like Ed Miliband, to emerge well from the expenses mess). The momentum appears to be building: Johnson has been joined in the call for electoral reform by the Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham. Even Roy Hattersley, the former Labour deputy leader, has renounced decades of support for the first-past-the-post status quo.

PR is far from an ideal system. In some cases, it would threaten the direct link between MPs and their constituencies. And, without an appropriate threshold, it would award a disproportionate advantage to smaller parties – which could, in theory, win parliamentary seats for the British National Party.

However, such concerns were answered by the late Roy Jenkins in his 1998 report calling for what he termed the “Alternative Vote Plus”. It is for a revival of this model, shelved by Tony Blair, that Mr Johnson is calling. Alternative Vote Plus preserves the constituency link; and Mr Jenkins predicted a natural 10.9 per cent threshold before any party stands a chance of winning a Commons seat.

One of the best arguments for such a system is that it would provide a check on what Mr Clegg, in his interview in this week's New Statesman, calls the “secretive” power of an executive that places the legislature “under the thumb” of government control. The Jenkins Commission concluded that the results of the 1997 and 1992 general elections would have been the same – but with smaller majorities for the winning parties, which would surely have been desirable.

The case for electoral reform is not just a technical one. Under the present system, the “tail wags the dog”; roughly a million voters in marginal seats across Middle England determine the results of general elections. As such, the vast proportion of the electorate – the country’s silent progressive majority – is, in effect, disenfranchised.

Evidence of this skewing of the centre of political gravity rightwards can be seen from examining the 1992 general election, at which a majority of voters opted for those parties advocating an increase in income tax. Yet the electoral system ensured that the Thatcherite consensus on low levels of taxation limped on.

The advantage of what Mr Johnson calls a “genuinely radical” alternative, therefore, is cultural: it promises a revolution in progressive politics. This would have the advantage of freeing Labour to pursue policies that are closer to its natural instincts, and would also force the Conservatives closer to the centre ground.

We unreservedly reject the conservatism of a narrow Labour partisanship that continues to oppose PR. Mr Clegg shows in his interview that he is ideologically much closer to Labour than to the Tories, even if he cannily refuses to rule out a coalition with the latter. Those Labour conservatives, such as Jack Straw and John Prescott, who oppose PR are also opposed to co-operation with the Lib Dems.

They are wrong on both counts.

Equally, the argument that Gordon Brown cannot introduce PR because it will be seen as “desperate” is as unconvincing as it is cynical. We agree with those, including Mr Clegg, who criticise Labour for doing “too little, too late”. But that does not mean that nothing can or should be done. It is time for Labour to learn from Mr Clegg and seize back the initiative.

And it is better late than never.

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother