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The Guardian

Maybe I was wrong after all
By Roy Hattersley
June 2, 2003

I spent a great deal of the 1980s helping to prevent the Labour party from endorsing the briefly fashionable demand for proportional representation. When, as a holding operation against the near irresistible forces of "electoral reform", we appointed a "commission" to examine alternative voting systems, I persuaded Raymond (now Lord) Plant to chair it in the knowledge that he was fully in favour of "first past the post". Unfortunately he turned out to be so open-minded that, by the end of the inquiry, he had convinced himself of the need for change. But I stood firm. Now I have taken the advice that Oliver Cromwell gave to the assembly of the Free Church of Scotland and begun to consider the possibility that I might have been wrong.

As yet I am not wholly convinced that I was in error. But I can now construct a crucial argument in proportional representation's support. It has nothing to do with "fair voting" or enhanced democracy. A House of Commons that numerically replicates the general election strengths of the major parties is no more likely to reflect the will of the people than a parliament in which the government has an overall working majority.

Indeed, complete proportionality would result in such confusion that the government it produced would reflect nothing except the need to cobble together a coalition. But a system that allowed one or two new parties to flourish might produce what I hope is still possible in this country - a genuine social democratic government. I assume that Tony Blair believes that too. That is why, on the subject of electoral reform, he and I have moved in opposite directions.

No doubt purists - always present in depressingly high numbers among Guardian readers - will complain that my motives are intended purely to achieve an ideological aim. Guilty as charged. But constitutions are always written or changed with a political end in view. The founding fathers of the United States got together before that fateful day in Philadelphia to sort out an arrangement that would properly reflect their prejudices. After the war the allied powers were less interested in giving every German vote "equal weight" than in making sure that one party never again ruled the Reichstag. More recent the Liberal party - for all its conspicuous piety - pressed for PR because it thought that it would increase its number of MPs. My modest aim is a touch of socialism.

Proportional representation - in all Britain as in Scotland - would result in both the growth of fringe parties and the creation of new ones. I would not join any of them. I have always said that I will remain a member of the Labour party until I die. And since my loyalty has survived six years of "the project", I have no reason to doubt my tenacity. The attraction of a new voting system is the effect that new parties would have on Blair and his successors.

A House of Commons elected on a modest system of proportional representation would include Green MPs and members from something which (for the sake of argument) I will call the Socialist party. The new party of the left which I have in mind would not be Arthur Scargill's neanderthal awkward squad or Tommy Sheridan's strange combination of Marxism, Trotskyism and Scottish sentimentality. It would represent unrealistic, rather than extreme, democratic socialism and advocate the sort of policies that Blair explicitly supported in his 1983 election manifesto. It would almost certainly (wrongly, in my view) be antagonistic to the European Union. But under PR, it would win a dozen seats.

That election result would be unlikely to make the new parties contenders for coalition partnership. But its candidates would win 2,000 to 3,000 votes in most constituencies. For we know that "first past the post" - which offers minor parties neither power nor influence - is the main reason that so many votes are concentrated on the "big three". Suddenly the Greens and the Socialists would become a force - particularly to the minds of Labour MPs in marginal constituencies.

It is easy enough to imagine the cries of pain that will come from those ideologically footloose Blarites who eight years ago decided it is best to abandon extremism in favour of frenzied moderation. For they would know that if the government continued to build hospitals that meet the needs of speculators rather than the patients and persisted in allowing private companies to mismanage education, the Socialist party candidates would take enough of their votes to risk them losing their seats. And winning is New Labour's guiding principle. So they would beg the leadership to steal some of the Socialist party's clothes as it has stolen the Tories'.

I want a system that puts a political premium on moving a moderate distance to the left. Proportional representation - not transferable votes, but real proportional representation - might just have that effect.


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