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
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.
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'.
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.