I have been taken to task over the past couple of weeks by friends in Make Votes Count, the proportional representation campaign, over my interpretation of last month’s Labour National Policy Forum shenanigans over electoral reform.
In case you didn’t read my last column – or, perish the thought, you read it and forgot it instantly – I was not at all happy about the Forum’s agreement to postpone indefinitely Labour’s long-promised referendum on electoral reform for the House of Commons or about what I saw as its effective rejection of a variety of PR as the putative replacement for first past the post that would be put to the people in the referendum.
The Forum’s line, I thought, means that a referendum probably will not take place at all – but that if it does it will offer a choice between the status quo and an even less proportional system than FPTP, the alternative vote. And that, I concluded, is a Bad Thing.
My MVC friends, however, think I’ve bought the spin from the opponents of electoral reform. In fact, they say, the Policy Forum was not too bad. It didn’t rule out a referendum forever. And it certainly didn’t endorse an FPTP-AV choice in the referendum. There is, they say, everything still to play for – which is a lot better than it might have been.
So – is the glass half-empty or half-full? I accept that things could have been much worse. But I still think half-empty, because I believe that the Labour leadership could and should have told the union barons that are the financial and political mainstay of Labour’s constitutional conservative camp to get lost, or else bought them off. The “mo”, to use an American term that was all the rage eight years ago but now seems strangely archaic, is now with opponents of reform.
Nevertheless, it is true that the door has not been slammed shut. If at some point – probably not in the next parliament, maybe in the one after that – Labour needs Liberal Democrat support for a Commons majority, a referendum on PR could once again find itself very much on the agenda.
A Labour government reliant on Lib Dem support would also be forced to restart its stalled constitutional reform programme – a democratically legitimate second chamber, regional government for England – and take a much more positive line on Europe. It would be unable to get away with the crass illiberal populism that has characterised Jack Straw’s Home Office. And it would probably be rather more active in defence of the welfare state and on the environment.
For all these reasons, it makes sense for constitutional reformers and pro-Europeans, civil libertarians and environmentalists, socialists and social democrats to do what they can to ensure as large a Lib Dem contingent as possible in the next two Parliaments. And that means that Labour members and supporters should vote Lib Dem in the next general election wherever there is a sitting Liberal Democrat MP – sorry, no exceptions -- and wherever the Liberal Democrat is better placed than Labour to oust a sitting Tory, the 20 most winnable of which (in descending order of marginality) are the following:
Dorset Mid and Poole North
Tiverton and Honiton
Surrey South West
Westmoreland and Lonsdale
Worthing East and Shoreham
Don’t worry – the Labour candidate in all these seats will be either a local council worthy standing to remind people to vote Labour in the local elections or a fresh-faced wannabe career politician (probably Millbank-approved) showing willing in the hope of getting somewhere winnable next time. They really won’t mind if you don’t vote for them – and it won’t do any harm at all to the socialist or working-class cause. Take my word for it.