Shifting goalposts over a hung parliament

Speculation proves case for electoral reform + Tories shouldn’t complain + But Labour must do more t

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How the goalposts shift in British politics. When Mehdi Hasan and I began writing about the possibilities of a hung parliament, back in June, we were told that the Tories would win by a landslide. Now, as poll after poll points to a hung parliament, we are told that Gordon Brown would be finished even in that event.

Nick Clegg repeatedly dissociates himself from the Prime Minister as the question is asked: What would happen if Labour came third in the share of votes but remained first in the seats?

Well, I could not agree more with Mehdi, who today explained why the Tories do not have a leg to stand on when it comes to the claim that Labour could not govern in such a scenario. As I have said before, they are now the only preservers of the status quo.

But that does not mean Labour could not have done more to avoid such understandable, if ultimately pointless and hypothetical speculation. At a time when the huge deficiencies of our first-past-the-post electoral system will come under scrutiny as never before, and more so after Cleggmania, Labour appears to have scored an own goal by failing to commit unambiguously to proportional representation.

In a fascinating interview on BBC1's Politics Show today, Alan Johnson, the reform-minded Home Secretary, who favours the late Roy Jenkins's proportional AV+ formula, admits that there are disagreements at the heart of the Labour Party, not just over whether a hung parliament would be a bad thing, as Ed Balls has said, but also over constitutional and electoral reform.

But turning on the Tories and their media supporters, Johnson said: "This is a fascinating time for us supporters of PR who over the years have been told it's not the popular vote that counts; it's the number of seats you win. Suddenly we're told, 'Oh, it's the popular vote that counts.' "

The presenter, Jon Sopel, then said that Johnson was turning his past complaint about the system "on its head".

It is Johnson -- and electoral reformers -- who have been right all along. The Tory hypocrisy about this is amazing. But Labour could have done more to strengthen its own position.

It's high time the instinctively conservative Prime Minister articulated the case for radical change, urgently, and gave Britain's silent progressive majority a reason to vote tactically to keep out the one remaining party -- the Tories -- wedded to a system whose flaws it now seeks to exploit.



James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.