Magazine article The Spectator

Why Mr Mandelson's Trick Has Not Even Deceived Mr Ashdown

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Mr Mandelson's Trick Has Not Even Deceived Mr Ashdown

Article excerpt

Roy Jenkins is hard at work. The publication date for his report on proportional representation has slipped back to allow him more time to refine his arguments and add elegancies to the prose style; the document is now expected around the end of October. But this is not enough to allay the Liberal party's anxieties.

The Liberal activists in Brighton this week are not interested in refinement or elegance. They want power and they are beginning to wonder whether Tony Blair has any intention of conceding it. Last week, Mr Ashdown assured us that he trusts Mr Blair. When politicians say that of one another in public, they are rarely telling the truth and Mr Ashdown has an obvious reason to be less than trusting.

If Mr Blair really did intend to recast the electoral system, he would already have taken steps to prepare public opinion; to create a momentum for change that would help him win a referendum campaign. But there is no momentum, only evasiveness, from No. 10; nor is Downing Street yet discouraging the Labour opponents of PR from staking out their ground. It may well be that Mr Blair's closest advisers have come to recognise that the arguments which appeared to impel them towards PR are much weaker than they seemed a year ago.

Then, Labour enthusiasm for PR was based on the party's historic electoral weakness and on the Jenkins thesis. Some Labour MPs had become so inured to defeat that even May 1997 had not reanimated their electoral optimism. Labour should not be beguiled by its large majority, they counselled: look at 1945 and 1966. It was not worth preserving an electoral system which allowed Labour to win outright once every 20 years or so, while ensuring that the Tories were in power for three quarters of the time.

Roy Jenkins reinforced this pessimism. The 20th century had been a Tory century, his Lordship declared, because the centreleft had been divided, allowing a Tory minority to impose its will under a firstpast-the-post electoral system. Change that system, and the 21st century would see the centre-left predominant and the Tories marginalised.

But during the past few months, these equations have altered, for several reasons. The first is electoral calculation. When even Margaret Thatcher now thinks that Mr Blair can win a second full term, Labour MPs are no longer feeling as if they had trespassed into power; one hears the occasional tentative revival of that Wilsonian phrase `the natural party of government'. There has also been a re-examination of the Jenkins thesis.

In a previous epoch, some Labour modernisers will argue, we lost elections, not because we were doomed to, but because we deserved to. We always allowed ourselves to be saddled with unpopular policies; we were nearly always telling the voters that they could elect us, but only on our terms. It is hardly surprising that they usually rejected us. But now that those days have gone, it is no longer a question of brief Labour interludes when Tory governments become exhausted. Why should we not win power regularly - and what is the point of being in power if we have to share it with the Liberals?

That is the principal reason for the decline in Labour's enthusiasm for PR: the thought of being forced to treat the Liberals as if they were a serious governmental force. Mr Blair would like to head a government of the great and the good. …

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