There is an alternative

6 Jul 07
DAVID LIPSEY | Gordon Brown dares do what Tony Blair wanted to do.

Gordon Brown dares do what Tony Blair wanted to do.

That is the perhaps the most surprising theme to emerge after Brown’s first week in office — is it really only a week?

It showed first in his audacious offer of jobs to the Liberal Democrats. This was brilliant politics. The LibDems were stuffed if they said ‘yes’ and stuffed if they said ‘no’, and especially stuffed when some of them said they would work for Brown’s government so long as they weren’t called ministers. The LibDems called it ‘dirty politics’ but the public will not understand why it is supposed to be dirty to offer someone a job.

Tony Blair of course could have performed precisely the same trick after any of his three election victories. He didn’t, not because of the LibDem reaction but because he feared he would be eaten alive by tribal Labour.

Brown’s move was as bold in its way as Blair’s abolition of Clause 4 of Labour’s constitution. You could even imagine that the move could have so infuriated Labour traditionalists that his leadership was immediately and fatally affected. Instead, he got away with it with even less party dissent than greeted the end of Clause 4.

Then there were the business leaders joining Labour in the Lords for Gordon; and the ex-diplomat; and even a doctor. Tony’s tent was never this big — although there are some sores to heal among Labour peers who had been loyally backing the government while waiting for promotion.

Then there were the ministerial appointments — Tony never dared make a young and visibly human woman home secretary. Then there were the gestures to the anti-war lobby with the return to office of John Denham who resigned over it.

And then there were the lollipops for Islington liberals — demos again permitted outside the Houses of Parliament (although in fact they had never stopped) and a parliamentary vote to be held before wars (except in emergencies, which makes the provision pretty redundant). He even held a meeting of the Cabinet which discussed real issues in a really open way. And so it has gone on.

These, of course, are not major changes of substance. Brown has not yet announced that the troops are coming home. He has not yet imposed a tax levy on the super-rich. He has not made the NHS independent of ministers, nor has he joined the euro or stuck two fingers up to the European Union.

In general, he has not lurched to the Left as many suspected and some hoped he might. A few dramatic gestures are not the same as a dramatic shift.

However, if he carries on in this mode, out-daring Blair is likely to continue. There is one particular change he could make which would make the previous prime minister look like a scaredy-cat — and there are some indications it might be on the cards.

Blair was elected in 1997 promising a referendum on Britain’s first-past-the-post election system, appointing a committee under Lord Jenkins (of which I was a member) to recommend the best alternative. We did: but Labour backbenchers huffed and puffed and Blair rapidly thought better of his promise.

Even Brown is unlikely to hold that referendum now. The Jenkins report is nearly nine years old. There have been problems with the variant on the system he recommended for Westminster that was used in Scotland. A review of electoral systems has been stumbling on in Whitehall, but wholesale change is not on the cards.

However, there is a lesser but important change, part of the Jenkins recommendations. This is the alternative vote system, whereby voters list candidates in order of preference from one to three.

The bottom candidates are eliminated in turn until one has more than 50% of the vote.

This would be radical, paving the way for a possible Labour/LibDem arrangement, each party agreeing to make the others’ candidate their second preference. It would in most circumstances help Labour electorally. But most importantly, Brown would get away with it with his party.

Electoral reformers would think it insufficiently bold, but after more than a century of achieving nothing, they would settle for it.

More significantly, it is acceptable to first-past-the-posters such as Jack Straw, an opponent of proportional representation. Even Nick Brown, a traditionalist who is close to Brown, is sympathetic to the idea. It preserves the constituency link, and crucially it does not threaten to get rid of the Westminster seat of any existing MP.

AV appears to have been discussed at Brown’s first Cabinet on ‘reconnecting with the people’, although it did not figure in his statement to Parliament on constitutional reform on July 3. If it is to be done, it were best it be done quickly, so that it can be in place for the next general election. The quicker the better for Brown too, while he is enjoying the initial flush of authority in office.

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