New Statesman & Society leader, 12 August 1994
There can be no doubt that Tony Blair’s arrival in the Labour leadership has had the effect of inducing near-panic among the Liberal Democrats. With the opinion polls showing the Lib Dems los¬ing ground to Labour, three of the Gang of Four who left Labour in 1981 to form the SDP have declared that Blair is their kind of Labour leader, prompting Paddy Ashdown to disown them and their views. Lib Dem publications are stuffed with arguments about what to do next.
Old-fashioned Labour types who never much liked the 1980s fashion for talk about cooperation between Britain’s two centre-left parties are crowing. But it would be wrong to take too much notice of them. Even though the Lib Dems are in a mess, they are not in such a mess that they can be written off as an electoral force. And there remain strong political reasons for the left to back cross-party collaboration.
To take the electoral arithmetic first: it is still the case that, in large parts of Britain, it is the Lib Dems and not Labour who are best placed to beat incumbent Conservatives at the next general election. In the current parliament, there are 92 Tory seats vulnerable on a swing of 5 per cent to the second-placed opposition party: on the 1992 result, the Lib Dems are the second-placed party in 19, mostly in the south-west and the rural south-east, with Labour the challenger in 70, mostly in the north, the Midlands, and the urban south. Even if one takes the extraordinary Labour performance in the 1994 European elections as a starting point, Labour can consider that only three of the Lib Dems’ 19 most promising Tory-held seats are three-way marginals in which it has a realistic chance of coming from third to win.
The Euro-elections showed the Lib Dem vote holding up well in the areas where its key marginal Westminster seats are to be found even though the overall Lib Dem perfor¬mance expressed.as a percentage of the total vote was poor. Much the same goes for recent opinion polls: the Lib Dems might be losing ground overall, but they are not doing as badly where it matters to them.
What’s more, Labour has an interest in the Lib Dems doing well. As Labour’s Last Chance?, the recent study of the 1992 election by Anthony Heath, Roger Jowell and John Curtice, shows conclusively, Labour is the main beneficiary of any shift from Tory to Lib Dem because, as the Tory vote falls, Labour starts to win seats where it is just behind the Tories, and there are far more of these than Tory seats where the Lib Dems are in second place. Heath, Jowell and Curtice calculate that a 4 per cent swing from Tory to Lib Dem would produce 29 Labour gains from the Tories and just 14 Lib Dem gains.
In similar vein, there is a serious downside for Labour if the Lib Dems do badly. Of the 11 Lib Dem seats that are vulnerable on a 5 per cent swing to the party placed second in 1992, three are vulnerable to Labour and eight to the Tories. A Lib Dem slump could be enough for the Conservatives to keep power.
But enough of psephology. No one knows what will intervene between now and the election to determine the performance of the parties on the day. Blair has not yet secured his passage to No 10: his honeymoon could prove to be short. With a little luck on the economy and a couple of tax-cutting budgets, John Major could still be Prime Minister in the year 2000.
In any case, the best argument for Labour’s not writing off the Lib Dems was never about numbers but about policy. As NSS has argued consistently, there has been precious little dividing the two parties since the mid-1980s, when Labour ditched its Alternative Economic Strategy. Like it or not – and much of Labour’s rightward drift has been far from the liking of this magazine – since Labour’s late-1980s policy review, the policy differences have been so small as to be unimportant on
economic and social policy, on the environment and transport, on Europe, on defence, and on every important constitutional issue bar one – proportional representation. The Lib Dems favour a single transferable vote system for the Commons; Labour has promised only to hold a referendum on electoral reform, and Blair has made it clear that he is not prepared to take the party any further.
And this is precisely why the radical left really needs the Lib Dems. Without the introducion of proportional representation for the Commons, no package of constitutional reform will be adequate to the task, in other respects admirably embraced by Blair, of turning Britain into a genuinely pluralist modern democracy. Labour’s commitments to a Bill of Rights, Scottish and Welsh parlia¬ments, devolution of powers to the English regions and abolition of the House of Lords are all excellent and long-overdue reforms – but the country also needs an electoral system for Westminster’s lower house that allows it adequately to reflect the spread of opinion across the country.
Proportional representation is the great blind spot of those who style themselves “modernisers” in today’s Labour Party. They are still, for all their rhetoric of pluralism, interested in the winner-takes-all game, still scared of sharing power, still afraid that their own party’s culture would somehow be tainted by contact with the Lib Dems – not to mention the new green and left groupings that would come into being with the advent of PR. There is a serious danger that, when push came to shove, a majority Labour govern¬ment would decide that the promised referendum on electoral reform could wait until a second term or maybe even for ever. That’s why NSS still reckons, as in 1992, that a degree of Liberal Democrat influence over any future Labour government would be no bad thing. Let’s wish Paddy Ashdown a speedy recovery.