Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 14 May 1999
There! It wasn’t so bad really, was it? OK, I admit, Labour doesn’t have a majority in either the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly. OK, Plaid Cymru did much better than anyone expected, winning in Rhondda, Islwyn and Llanelli. And OK, two wild leftists – Dennis Canavan and Tommy Sheridan – made it into the Scottish Parliament, along with a Green.
In truth, however, Great Britain’s first elections using a system of proportional representation were nothing like the disaster that Labour supporters of first past the post thought they would be.
The voters in Scotland and Wales confounded everyone who had predicted that they would be too stupid to understand how the additional member system works. Most voters found it simple to pick a constituency candidate and then to vote for a party’s regional list – and a significant minority decided to use their list votes to send a shot across the bows of the big party machines.
In Scotland, although Labour did not do as well as it would have done under first past the post– at least in terms of seats – the party proved itself well adapted to fighting a PR election and emerged with a haul of seats beyond the wildest dreams of party strategists even two months ago. The Scottish National Party was emphatically defeated. In Wales, a campaign designed more for damage-limitation than anything else came close to winning an overall Assembly majority. In neither country did the far-right win anything – and the success of the far Left in Scotland was token.
At the same time, it has done Labour no lasting harm to have its weaknesses exposed by the new electoral system. To put it in plain English, the Labour establishment in south Wales deserved a boot up the arse for its complacency, incompetence and nepotism – and it got it. The Millbank machine deserved the same for using union block votes to fix the party leadership in Wales for Alun Michael – and it got it. The effect can only be beneficial for Labour. It is clear that the party cannot remain a fiefdom of fat late-middle-aged male fixers if it is to retain its dominance of the country’s politics. It has to reconnect with Welsh society, and urgently. In Scotland, the victory of Canavan is a timely reminder to the Labour machine that there is a price to be paid for barring dissidents and eccentrics from standing for public office.
As for the supposedly inevitable horrors of coalition politics, well, they now seem little more than chimerical. In both Scotland and Wales, it is apparent that the smaller parties on which Labour will have to rely for support when push comes to shove – the Lib Dems and, in Wales, Plaid Cymru – are not interested in extracting maximum short-term advantage out of their position. Rather they want to establish themselves as dependable, if on occasion critical, partners with Labour. Labour will not be held to ransom, even if it will have to take into account other points of view, for example on tuition fees.
Other things being equal, then, the experience of the Scottish and Welsh elections should strengthen the case for using PR to elect the Commons. The problem is that other things are not equal. Strangely enough, given the scale of its first-term constitutional programme, new Labour has never been more than a reluctant convert to the cause of constitutional reform. All the measures promised in its 1997 manifesto – devolution to Scotland and Wales, abolition of hereditary peers, PR for Europe, a referendum on electoral reform for Commons elections, incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights – were inherited from the Labour Party of Neil Kinnock and John Smith. And now that they are largely in place (with the exception of Lords reform), all the signs are that the government has no enthusiasm for taking things further.
The Jenkins Commission’s recommendations for changing the electoral system are gathering dust, and the promised referendum on them is unlikely to take place before the next general election. The prospects for elected regional assemblies in England and an elected second chamber are even more distant, if they can be said to exist at all.
Which is not to knock what the government has done so far. Britain’s creaking constitution needed a radical overhaul, and New Labour has made a start on it. The problem is that the job is only half-finished – and looks likely to stay that way. What a wasted opportunity.