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9 April 2021

From the NS archive: Electoral reform ain’t the answer

4 September 1987: Tony Blair, Labour's shadow trade and industry spokesperson, on the party's growing affection for proportional representation. 

By Tony Blair

In 1987, Labour had lost three elections in a row, two of them in landslides, though they could, at least, comfort themselves that they had gained votes and seats from 1983, finishing decisively ahead of the Alliance (the combined forces of the Liberal and Social Democratic Party). The election had sent the Alliance into a tailspin of infighting and acrimony, with the party beginning talks over whether to merge into one joint party. Labour’s grassroots began to flirt with embracing electoral reform and electoral pacts as a way back to power. But the party’s shadow trade and industry spokesperson, Tony Blair, believed that the row was a distraction. A decade later, he would lead Labour back into government, while the merged “Liberal Democrats” would enter government as part of a coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives in 2010. 

Until now, support for proportional representation was confined to the Liberal/SDP Alliance and to lone voices in the two main parties. But this year no fewer than 15 resolutions for the Labour Party’s annual conference favour proportional representation (PR) or some sort of electoral reform. 

It is argued that Labour has now lost three elections in a row, its support is irretrievably stuck at 30 per cent, give or take a few points, and that the only route back is to combine our vote with the other “anti-Thatcher” votes – either through a pact with the Liberals (or whatever political Pushme-Pullyou results from the merger talks), or through PR. 

In other words, Labour’s new enthusiasts for PR put their case not primarily on grounds of constitutional principle, but as a strategy for power. The implications of their case are fundamental: that Labour cannot ever again win a majority of seats in parliament; and that what cannot be achieved through the front door of majority government can be bundled in by the back door of coalitions and electoral pacts. 

This view rests on dangerous delusions. It is obvious that we cannot confuse an “anti-Thatcher” majority with a “pro-Labour” one. What is less obvious, though as the Alliance unravels it becomes more so, is the inadequacy of the very notion of an “anti-Thatcher” majority. There are Alliance voters, probably even a majority, whose predominant characteristic is dislike of the Tories. But at present, there is a substantial minority of Alliance voters who are equally anti-Labour, as the Greenwich by-election showed. So, under PR, there is no guarantee that the 1987 election would have produced a Labour-led coalition. It was this fallacy of the cohesive “anti-Thatcher” majority that lay at the root of Tactical Voting 87’s difficulties in the general election.

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[See also: From the NS archive: Hanging]

The real question for the Labour Party is why it is not achieving sufficient electoral support. It must face this question irrespective of whether we retain the present electoral system or change it, whether we stand for election alone or in a pact. The campaign for PR is just the latest excuse for avoiding decisive choices about the party’s future. 

A coalition still has to decide its economic policy, its industrial policy, what it intends to do about defence or foreign affairs or trade union law. An electoral pact must decide these things before it has even the prospect of power. Yet these are all the very decisions that Labour faces now. It can’t escape them by electoral reform or a pact, it can only postpone them. The reasons why people didn’t vote Labour at the last three elections won’t disappear through some mystical process of coalition. 

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There is no decision that would be justifiable for Labour to make in order to win power in a coalition that it should not be making anyway for itself. Conversely, there is no decision that is unjustifiable for Labour to make alone that becomes justifiable by virtue of coalition. If a set of policies form an acceptable basis for a coalition, they should be an acceptable basis for a majority government. 

Some of the Labour Party conference resolutions betray a comforting view that electoral reform legitimises self-indulgence: we can become a true socialist movement without the need, as Colne Valley Labour Party puts it, “to appeal to the wavering middle ground”. In practical terms, this is the most dangerous delusion of all. 

[See also: From the NS archive: City of unsafe dreams]

Imagine that under PR the voting pattern of the last election is maintained. The immediate effect would be not to transform Labour’s position, but that of the Alliance. It would leap from its present 22 seats to over 100. What would the attitude of the 100 be? To help Labour? Of course not. Their strategy would be to build on what they had and to marginalise the Labour Party. If Labour then obliged by retreating into fundamentalism, its fate is more likely to parallel that of the French Communist Party than that of the German Social Democrats. 

Indeed, as the 57 varieties of the Alliance ponder their own future, they must look with some incredulity on the PR campaign in the Labour Party. At the very moment when democratic fusion turns to undemocratic fission, we are debating how to gather up their pieces and rebuild them into a greater whole. 

The collapse of the Alliance is Labour’s opportunity. This is only not true if Labour can never regain power without the Alliance. But there are no iron laws in politics. The key to Mrs Thatcher’s political success has been in destroying and re-creating contours of electoral support. This isn’t to scorn the historical factors which have chiselled away at Labour’s electoral plinth. But whenever social change occurs, political parties must adapt or die. And by-elections over the past decade have shown that the electorate is increasingly volatile, not static. 

[See also: From the NS archive: The new geography]

We will make our own history. If Labour accepts that, while its founding principles and values are as relevant today as they were almost 100 years ago, it needs profound changes in ideas and organisation to translate them into 1990s practice, then it can and will win. At present there are three parties operating in a system designed for two. Either one party will drop out or the system will change. Labour will decide which. But in either eventuality, the Labour Party will find no short cuts back to power.