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Monday, 12 March, 2001, 18:26 GMT
PR: Don't hold your breath

Nyta Mann

Tony Blair entered Downing Street in 1997 having promised in Labour's manifesto to hold a referendum on changing the electoral system for the House of Commons.

To the surprise of few, it never happened.

It is in entirely in keeping with political tradition that in the end, the no-change camp has held sway

The rule of political parties' interest in electoral reform held true: warmth towards PR rapidly cools with the onset of power won under the old system.

Among the reasons proffered early on by Mr Blair's government for the poll's non-appearance were a heavy parliamentary agenda and a wish to see other constitutional changes "bed down". Labour's promise of a "review" of those changes merely formalises that position.

But the prime minister's heart had never really been in the referendum pledge from the start.

Holding a referendum on proportional representation (PR) was part of the policy inheritance Tony Blair came into when he won the Labour leadership following the death in 1994 of John Smith.

It was also a highly useful promise for Labour to keep on the books at a time when, following Mr Blair's accession, he opened secret talks with then-Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown on co-operation between the two parties.

In keeping with history

But the record-breaking size of Labour's 1997 majority (on less than 43% of the vote), the government's painful experience of PR in Scottish, Welsh, London and Euro-elections and cabinet antipathy towards voting reform ensured that this was one manifesto pledge with scant chance of delivery.

Lord Jenkins: Appointed by Blair to recommend an alternative
While Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam, Clare Short and recently-defenestrated Peter Mandelson remain pro-reform, their combined weight has been no match for the implacable opposition of Gordon Brown, Jack Straw, John Prescott, a host of trade union leaders and an energetic anti-PR campaign within Labour.

No matter that Mr Blair went so far as to ask Lib Dem peer Lord Jenkins of Hillhead to preside over a commission to recommend which particular proportional system should be put before voters in any referendum.

It is in entirely in keeping with political history that in the end, the no-change camp has held sway.

Liberal enthusiasm

In its earliest years, Labour was largely in favour of PR.

Neil Kinnock famously dismissed Charter 88 as chattering class 'whiners and whingers'. Within a few years he had joined them as a fully paid-up member

For Keir Hardie and many of the party's founders it provided a solution to Labour's reliance on the secret electoral pact with the Liberals at the start of the 20th century.

But as Labour started to win more seats at Westminster, so its enthusiasm for PR waned.

At around the same time, and by no small coincidence as Labour started to eclipse them, the Liberals began to see PR as a vital issue. It was, they decided, essential to their own survival. Ever since, it has been a central theme of their policies - as seen with today's Liberal Democrats.

Tory flirtation

Debate on the subject ebbed and flowed over the following years but it was not until the mid-1970s that it sparked back into life in the political mainstream of the dominant parties.

The Conservatives - these days implacably opposed to PR - flirted with electoral reform when they discovered a new interest in the subject after the February 1974 election, in which they won more votes yet fewer seats than Labour.

Future heavyweights Douglas Hurd and Chris Patten backed reform, as did a new entrant to the Commons by the name of Michael Ancram - now Conservative party chairman.

But once the Tories were returned to office with a healthy majority in 1979, the internal push for electoral reform evaporated.

Labour reawakening

Soon it was Labour's turn to become seriously taken with the idea once more. After losing its third general election in a row in 1987, the party took close heed of the fact that the Tories had, as in 1979 and 1983, again won a large parliamentary majority on less than 44% of the vote.

Electoral reform now became highly fashionable with the left-leaning intelligentsia in and around Labour. In 1988 the constitutional reform group Charter 88 was launched with PR for the House of Commons one of its chief objectives.

The Labour leadership was not immediately impressed. Indeed, Neil Kinnock famously dismissed Charter 88 as chattering class "whiners and whingers". Within a few years he had joined them as a fully paid-up member.

Into the long grass

Labour's rekindled enthusiasm soon had an effect on policy - the result of which would also later be seen in the PR Scottish Parliament, Welsh and London Assembly elections.

Tony Blair entered Downing Street having inherited a pledge that did not come from the heart
An internal working party was set up to examine the issue. After Labour's defeat at the 1992 election, it recommended reforming the way MPs were elected.

But new party leader John Smith kicked the report - and the inevitable internal wrangling a policy statement on the subject would have caused - into the long grass by promising that a Labour government would hold a referendum on the issue in its first term.

That first Labour government, led by Mr Blair, got as far as welcoming Lord Jenkins's efforts in 1998 when his Independent Commission on the Voting System came up with its recommended alternative to first past the post.

But the report proved to be the high-watermark as far as PR for Westminster was concerned and the issue went back into the long grass once more.

Lib Dem scepticism

In Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrats have a leader far more sceptical about Labour's PR intentions than they had under Mr Ashdown.

But the Lib Dems remain the party Mr Blair would, in the event of a tiny Labour majority or hung parliament, be expected to turn to as coalition partners - as is the case in the Scottish and Welsh devolved assemblies.

The hard facts of politicians' wavering interest in reforming the electoral system for Westminster suggest that perhaps only in these circumstances should the Lib Dems expect delivery, albeit late, of that unfulfilled pledge from 1997.

The prime minister's careful, and minimal, retention of the possibility of a referendum demonstrate that Downing Street is getting its contingency plans in order for just such a set of circumstances.


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