Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Prescott's PR Job

Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Prescott's PR Job

Article excerpt

I HAVE lost count of the number of times I have expressed my strongly held view that electoral reform is central to the New Labour project. Roy Jenkins has convinced Mr Blair that it is his historic destiny as a great modernising prime minister to reshape the political landscape such that the 21st century will belong to the `progressives', just as the 19th was dominated by 'liberals' and the 20th fell, aberrantly as the noble baron would see it, to the Conservatives.

The PM's convictions in this regard have been consistently reinforced by Peter Mandelson and the ex-SDP Downing Street policy adviser, Roger Liddle. The introduction of proportional voting was to be the mechanism whereby the Tories would be excluded from power forever by a permanent coalition of the newly melded centre. Or at least if the Right did manage to regain office, its ability to abuse its power would always be tempered by the restraining influence of a coalition partner. It was this latter potential which particularly endeared the policy to the generations of young Blairites who had grown up under what they perceived as the extremist, outof-control Thatcher governments.

The Independent Commission on Electoral Systems, chaired by Lord Jenkins, is due to report in the last week of October. Recommendations broadly along the lines of 'AV Plus' (electing constituency members through a preferential, rather than proportional, vote and `topping up' with additional members from a party list) are widely expected. It is also generally assumed that Mr Blair would not have asked Lord Jenkins, whom he reveres, to chair this group unless he intended to accept his core findings.

All these things were obvious a few months ago; but now, to paraphrase Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, things are not what they seemed. Not that anything has changed. It hasn't. The only difference between today and last month is that the Labour party conference has thrown into relief a factor which had not previously loomed large: John Prescott.

It had been assumed that, while he might scream and drag his feet at the latest Blairite outrage, Mr Prescott would always support the PM in the end. Only a couple of days after Labour took office one of Mr Prescott's closest lieutenants told me that `John's job is to look after Tony. He's either a super-loyal deputy or he's nothing.'

He has been exactly that. He remained silent when Blair overruled the rest of the Cabinet in accepting list PR for the European parliamentary elections and the London assembly, both of which went beyond manifesto commitments or other agreements. During last autumn's fight over benefit cuts he held the line on the lone parent premium. He famously batted for Blair over the new Clause Four of the party's constitution, and he will keep his own counsel while Blair leads us into the euro, much though he personally disapproves.

As every modern consumer knows, loyalty carries a bonus, and the prize Prescott has chosen to claim with his brownie points is the survival of Britain's first-pastthe-post (FPTP) electoral system. The quiet word from the New Labour sanctums is that this time the DPM has drawn a line in the sand. He has become a Gladstonian Stentor intoning, `Thus far shalt thou go, and no further,' to a modernising New Labour faction as frustrated as was Charles Stewart Parnell over some electoral changes he wanted to make. …

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