Nobody likes the know-all who says ‘I told you so’ but in my book The Labour Party (2003) I really did write (on page 53 if you want to look) that Labour would change the electoral system for MPs only ‘when it was absolutely necessary’ to sustain the party in power.
The party went into the 1997 election committed to holding a referendum on the issue, Blair subsequently appointed a commission under Lord Jenkins and in 1999 this recommended a system of ‘AV plus’ – designed to retain the link between voter and MP while making the result more proportional.
Chancellor Gordon Brown was among those who opposed letting the people decide: after nearly two decades in opposition he did not want to create an electoral system that increased the chance of Labour having to form a coalition with the LibDems. Now, facing probable oblivion in May or June, Prime Minister Brown would be only too happy to have instead Nick Clegg sitting around the Cabinet table after the election. So while he might talk of AV promoting a ‘new politics’ it is electoral calculation that has caused the Prime Minister to embrace reform.
It was ever thus: Disraeli enfranchised the skilled working class in 1867 because he thought he could retain power as a result. There’s nowt so old as the ‘new politics’ it seems – especially when an election is in view.
Professor Steven Fielding