PR on the backburner
It is a big idea whose time has not yet come
Published January 28th 2003 in The Guardian

Hands up anyone who knows about Liberal Democrat tax policy? Or health policy? Or defence? The uncomfortable truth for those who want politics to consist of informed debates about rival policies is that most voters do not have a clue about any of them. There is probably only one exception to this rule. Sometimes over the past decade the Lib Dems have almost seemed to be a single issue party over the issue of proportional representation. This fact alone explains why the party leader Charles Kennedy was right, not wrong, to pour some discreet cold water on the PR issue in a weekend Times interview. At first sight this claim may seem perverse. If the policy mobilises the core supporters, or if it has recognition with voters generally, then party managers would normally be well advised not to ditch it. But the truth is that PR has become an almost wholly marginal issue in British politics. If Mr Kennedy wants to be taken seriously as a potential leader of the opposition - and he certainly does - then he needs tAo move swiftly away from the margins and head instead for the meatier issues that matter to most voters.

In any case, Mr Kennedy is not abandoning the commitment to PR at all. It is there, ready and waiting as before, as Mr Kennedy said as recently as last week in a Charter 88 lecture. All he is doing is saying that PR is a non-issue for the moment, at a time when all Westminster politics take place in the context of Labour's mega-majority in the House of Commons. Proportional representation is not going to become a live issue in British politics until one of two things starts to happen: either there will be Aa much closer general election than the last two, or else the Conservatives will suddenly wake up to the opportunities that fairer voting might give them in future. One day, PR will be back on the agenda. Until then, Mr Kennedy has more important work to do.