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“It would be a missed opportunity not to have a referendum on election day”

An interview with the Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw

Ben Bradshaw's office at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, off Trafalgar Square in central London, is a vast and colourful room, and the Culture Secretary is in good spirits. Yet surely, as a long-time supporter of proportional representation, he was disappointed by the Prime Minister's decision to delay a referendum on electoral reform until after the next election?

Bradshaw is blunt from the outset. "I don't think that's set in stone," he tells us, "and I think there's still an argument to be made."

This optimistic claim is one of a string of surprisingly frank statements that Bradshaw volunteers about the government's evolving policy on electoral reform - and its failure to back proportional representation (PR). When Gordon Brown finally announced Labour's shift away from first-past-the-post (FPTP) at the party conference in September, some of his advisers were greatly relieved, given the Prime Minister's history of caution and conservatism on this matter. One Downing Street aide told us at the time that Brown agreed to sign off on the move only hours before he delivered his speech to delegates in Brighton. "And so I can announce today that, in Labour's next manifesto, there will be a commitment for a referendum to be held early in the next parliament," Brown said. "It will be for the people to decide whether they want to move to the alternative vote."

On the surface, it may have seemed bold, perhaps historic. However, for devoted electoral reformers, committed to introducing a proportional voting system in which "every vote counts", and which smashes the undemocratic stranglehold of roughly a million voters in a handful of unrepresentative, "marginal" seats, the system Brown backed came as a bitter disappointment. The alternative vote (AV) is, like FPTP, non-proportional and majoritarian. As the Independent Commission on the Voting System (set up by the then prime minister, Tony Blair, and chaired by Roy Jenkins) pointed out in its landmark report in 1998: "AV on its own suffers from a stark objection. It offers little prospect of a move towards greater proportionality and, in some circumstances, and the ones which certainly prevailed at the last election and may well do so for at least the next one, it is even less proportional than FPTP."

The report added: "Simulations of how the 1997 result might have come out under AV suggest that it would have significantly increased the size of the already swollen Labour majority." But Jenkins's report, which recommended a new, hybrid and proportional voting system called "AV+", was kicked into the long grass by his one-time protégé Blair. "I don't think [electoral reform] is something that made Tony get up in the morning," says Bradshaw with a sigh.

More deflating still for reformers, Brown, in his speech, decided against what many on the liberal left thought could be a "game-changing" referendum on the same day as the general election. Polling conducted by YouGov for the Electoral Reform Society in August showed that one in three Lib Dem voters would be willing to consider switching his or her vote to Labour if the party delivered on an electoral reform referendum. However, Brown chose simply to reiterate a so far unfulfilled Labour manifesto pledge, first issued in 1997, for a post-election referendum - and a diluted one, at that. After all, the original manifesto commitment was for a vote on a "proportional alternative".

At a tense rally held in Brighton by the pro-PR campaign group Vote for a Change on the night of the Prime Minister's speech, one irate member of the audience said he had decided to quit the Labour Party over its failure - yet again - to commit to genuine electoral reform this side of the general election. A consensus in the Brighton audience soon emerged (despite rare voices of support for Brown's position, including Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society) that the cause of reform had been set back by a generation.

Bradshaw was among those in the cabinet, including Alan Johnson and John Denham, who had been pushing for an election-day referendum. "I think it would be a missed opportunity not to have a referendum on election day," he tells us. The Culture Secretary hopes for a policy reversal from the Prime Minister. "You only need one referendum," he explains. "You have two questions: Yes or No? If Yes to change, which of the following
options do you prefer?" On the claim from supporters of the Prime Minister's position that an election-day poll would "muddy the water" with the electorate, who might not understand the difference between voting for a party, on the one hand, and voting for electoral reform, on the other, Bradshaw is dismissive. "I say, if we're serious about the voters as grown-ups, then let them decide, and I think they'd be perfectly capable of making a decision."

Will his less enthusiastic, less optimistic colleagues listen to him? Bradshaw concedes that "there are many different views on this, both in the cabinet and in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Those of us, like me, who have been arguing this for some time have not so far been able to persuade people of our case, but we haven't given up completely."

His words will warm the hearts of electoral reformers, both inside and outside Labour, but has Bradshaw expressed his forthright views to Brown? "I've made my views plain, both privately and publicly." However, the Culture Secretary is also keen to emphasise what he regards as progress by the Prime Minister on this issue, perhaps the biggest piece of unfinished constitutional business after 12 years of New Labour governance.

It should be remembered, Bradshaw argues, that by announcing a post-election referendum on the alternative vote, "the Prime Minister has moved a very long way as someone who's been wedded firmly to the first-past-the-post system, and that should be welcomed. It is a historic shift, and I'm not and never have been one of these politicians or people who sees the glass as half empty rather than half full. That doesn't mean to say that people like me don't need to continue to make the case, and we are continuing to make the case."

Bradshaw makes it clear that he has no plans to silence his opposition to the referendum decision in the foreseeable future - not until it becomes official policy, at least. "To be frank, of course, once we decide the legislature for the next session, we'll all be bound by collective responsibility. But the Prime Minister is completely realistic that there are lots of different views on this . . . This is not a traditional area of government policy where people are not going to express different views."

Nor does he hide his criticisms of the alternative vote, despite it being endorsed by Brown, Jack Straw, Peter Hain and others. He is refreshingly honest: "I'm not suddenly going to pretend that I've changed my mind, either on the system of electoral reform or on what I think should happen. That doesn't mean to say that there won't come a time when I have to accept that I haven't had anything all my own way. But that's life in politics."
Bradshaw again reiterates his opposition to the disproportional nature of AV, returning to territory covered in the Jenkins report: "The reason I've never supported AV is that it would have given us an even bigger majority in 1997, and it would have given the Tories an even bigger majority in 1983, and probably 1987 as well." He is full of praise for Lord Jenkins's proposed alternative of AV+. "The system I favour, which is Jenkins's . . . was a brilliant synthesis of systems that both maintain the constituency link, which I value, and introduce a greater element of proportionality. As we've got that [report] why continue to reinvent the wheel?" He goes on to argue: "If one of the reasons that we want reform is to rebuild public trust and confidence in politics, make MPs more accountable, give more power to people and establish a political and parliamentary system that more reflects the will of the public, then AV doesn't deliver that."

Backing Peter Hain's comments in last week's New Statesman, Bradshaw is open about his disappointment with New Labour's overall record in office on constitutional and, in particular, electoral reform. "Of course I would have liked us to have done more, more quickly."

He explains this failure in part by pointing to the conservatism of some of his fellow Labour MPs. "[Reform was] deeply unpopular among many of my Labour colleagues, because they were turkeys voting for Christmas, and it remains unpopular among some of them. So I think that changed the climate and made it much more difficult to deliver the referendum, but we had Jenkins, and Jenkins did his job. I think it was a mistake not to then go forward with the promised referendum."

So does electoral reform remain, in his view, the "big one" on the constitutional agenda? "Yeah, but I think it will come. I think it will come. I think it's just a matter of time but, as I say, I think it was a missed opportunity."

However, Bradshaw, who has often been characterised as an ardent "Blairite" in the cabinet, is keen to defend the former prime minister's reluctance to push for reform: "You know, he had other things to deal with, and I'm afraid that's life, that's political reality."

So what is the reality for reformers? Listening to a disillusioned and disgruntled audience of pro-PR Labour members at the debate in Brighton, on the night of Brown's big conference speech, it was difficult to avoid concluding that the electoral reform movement had hit a brick wall and that the Vote for a Change campaign - demanding a PR referendum on voting day - had been a complete failure. What is Bradshaw's message to fellow reformers? "Don't be downhearted. Carry on campaigning," he says. "Celebrate the fact that we've got a historic commitment [to a referendum on change], which we've never had."

Still, one important question for Labour is whether the party leadership is doing enough about constitutional reform to win over the Liberal Democrats in the event of a hung parliament. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, has indicated that the post-election AV pledge is not acceptable, and that his party will not get into bed with Labour.

Are the Liberal Democrats right to blame Labour's conservatism on electoral reform for killing off any hopes of a 21st-century progressive coalition? Bradshaw is scathing. "Well, they may say that, but it's bonkers and they don't mean it. If you talk to Lib Dems on the ground, particularly not in Nick Clegg-land, which is very unrepresentative of Lib Dem-land . . . that progressive coalition is still there."

However, once more, Bradshaw is willing to concede that there has been a "lost opportunity" in recent years but, he says, "it needs to be tapped, it needs leadership, and that's why I think holding a referendum on election day would've been such a powerful thing, because I think it would have helped recrystallise that progressive coalition . . . Of course, at the moment, the Lib Dems are playing a tactical game because they think the government is unpopular and because they're scared of frightening off potential Tory voters by looking as if they're too cosy and close to us. That is an electoral pretence. It's not the reality and it's not what they believe." And he says: "The idea that the Liberal Democrats have more values in common with the Tories is preposterous."

Finally, we come back to the question of whether the government's position is reversible, and whether, against all odds, Brown might perform a U-turn and take a gamble on an exciting and potentially momentum-gathering election-day referendum on electoral reform. "I don't know," the Culture Secretary tells us. "I don't think it's very likely, but I never give up on anything until the fat lady sings irreversibly and, as far as I'm concerned, she hasn't yet."

The interview over, we leave Bradshaw's office, noticing on our way out a popular Second World War-era poster, fixed to the back of the door: "Keep Calm and Carry On". It is perhaps the perfect piece of advice from the Culture Secretary to the disheartened and angry members of Britain's electoral reform movement. The struggle for change is not over. Keep calm. Carry on.

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the New Statesman
James Macintyre is the NS political correspondent

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro