Friday, 30 October 1998


New Times, 30 October 1998

For a few days last month it seemed likely that the Italian centre-left would by now be looking back wistfully on two-and-a-half years in power, amid recriminations over the events that led to the fall of Romano Prodi’s ‘Olive Tree’ coalition government.

Prodi had resigned after his defeat in a parliamentary confidence vote which followed the decision of the hard-line Marxists of Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation), led by Fausto Bertinotti, not to back the government’s budget.

After that, it appeared probable that the next step would be the formation of a technocratic government to see Italy through the start of the European single currency at the beginning of next year, with a general election in spring or summer.

Instead, Massimo D’Alema, the leader of the centre-left Democrats of the Left (DS), the main partner in Prodi’s Olive Tree coalition, managed to put together a new centre-left coalition with himself at its head. Ten years ago, when the DS was the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and D’Alema one of its apparatchiks, the very prospect of his becoming prime minister would have caused panic in the stock markets and in Washington. But the western establishment welcomed the appointment of the first Italian prime minister from a party that was once communist with a sigh of relief that chaos had been averted. D’Alema’s new coalition shows every sign of being able to survive until 2001.

The reason for the rapid turnaround in the centre-left’s prospects last month is simple. Twenty-one of Rifondazione’s 34 deputies abandoned Bertinotti to his own devices to set up a new parliamentary fraction, under the label Comunisti Italiani (Italian Communists), offering support for a coalition led by D’Alema. That gave the DS leader the easiest of tasks in constructing a new and stable majority.

The defection from Rifondazione is not surprising. Most of Bertinotti’s parliamentary comrades had had enough of his populist posturing – he tried the same gambit last year, but was eventually forced to back down – and were not prepared to accept a vote of party activists in favour of withdrawing support for the government.

What is extraordinary, however, is the remarkable speed with which the Rifondazione renegades found a berth in government with D’Alema and his colleagues. They had until recently accused them of betraying the legacy of the PCI, to which they all at one time belonged.

The result of last month’s events is a government that is slightly to the left of Prodi’s. D’Alema has brought on board various centrists, but he has also given one of the Rifondazione rebels, Oliviero Diliberto, the crucial job of minister of justice. Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of the main party of the right in parliament, Forza Italia, is not pleased: he faces corruption charges and was hoping for lenience, which Diliberto is unlikely to give.

Nevertheless, on economic policy – of particular importance in the run-up to monetary union – D’Alema has pledged continuity. He has kept the cautious technocrat Carlo Azeglio Ciampi as treasury minister and has promised to keep to the Prodi government’s strict controls on public spending.

How the new government will relate to the rest of Europe remains to be seen. There is no change in foreign minister, the centrist Lamberto Dini, but the replacement of Prodi by D’Alema will probably make a small difference. Prodi was the European leader closest to Tony Blair; D’Alema is much more interested in developing a closer relationship with French president Lionel Jospin and German chancellor Gerhard Schröder. And with EMU in the offing, Rome has a better chance of entering into a menage a trois with Paris and Bonn than London has. Watch this space.

Monday, 12 October 1998


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 12 October 1998

Steve Platt made a lot of good points last week about the left and proportional representation. He’s absolutely right about the debilitating effect on British politics of the combination of ever-more-centralised party machines and a first-past-the-post electoral system for the House of Commons. General elections have been turned into an undignified scramble for the votes of a handful of affluent, socially conservative “swing voters” – “scumbags from suburbia who read the Daily Mail”, as a senior Labour official put it to me some years ago. The result has been the marginalisation of creative thinking and dissident voices in mainstream politics.

So I agree with Platt entirely when he argues that a genuine PR system for the House of Commons, far from condemning us to never-ending coalitions of centre-left or centre-right, could liberate the left by allowing a credible red-green grouping to win parliamentary representation. Just look at Germany.

The problem, however, is that when Lord Jenkins’s Independent Commission on the Voting System reports later this month it is set to propose a system that rules out any such thing.

According to no less an authority than Hugo Young in the Guardian, Jenkins will come out for a hybrid system known as “AV-plus” to be put to voters in the government’s promised PR referendum. Under AV-plus, around 500 MPs would be elected in single-member constituencies by the alternative vote, and 150 or so “top-up” MPs would be added to ensure greater proportionality of results in each city and county.

Supporters of AV-plus say that it is the only option that both satisfies the Jenkins commission’s terms of reference – “broad proportionality, the need for stable government, an extension of voter choice and the maintenance of a link between MPs and geographical constituencies” – and is capable of winning the support of both the Liberal Democrat and Labour leaderships.

They could be right: we shall see. For our purposes here, however, what is important is that AV-plus as described by Young is also designed to keep small parties out of parliament.

For a start, the use of the alternative vote for single-member-constituency MPs would if anything make it more difficult for small parties to win seats than it is at present. Under AV, voters mark their ballot papers not with a single “x” but by numbering their preferences 1, 2, 3 and so on. If no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of first preferences, the bottom-placed candidate is eliminated and his or her second preferences are added to the other candidates’ totals, and so on until one candidate tops 50 per cent. Its main effect is to encourage the election of “least objectionable” candidates – and it has rightly been castigated as a recipe for making our political life even blander than it is now.

What is really disappointing, however, is the proposal for electing the top-up MPs by cities and counties rather than by regions. With top-up systems, the smaller the clusters of single-member constituencies that are being topped up, the larger the share of the vote a party needs to win a top-up seat in any cluster. If, under a regional AV-plus system, a party were to get 10 per cent of AV first preferences but no single-member seats in a region with 40 single-member and 10 top-up seats, it would almost certainly win top-up representation. In an extremely localised AV-plus system, a party winning the same share of first preferences in a city with four single-member constituencies and one top-up seat would not win anything.

Of course, we’ll have to wait to read the small print before coming to firm conclusions. But I’m afraid that the dream of the emergence of a credible new red-green party is going to have to remain a dream (at least for Commons elections) for a little while longer.

Which is not to say that the left should mobilise to trash the Jenkins report or back the status quo in the referendum campaign. Sticking to first-past-the-post would effectively wipe out the prospects of PR for the Commons for a generation – and that would be a disaster.

In spite of last year’s landslide, Labour should never forget that first-past-the-post has not been kind to it: 1997 is only the third time it has won a comfortable parliamentary majority. For all its faults, AV-plus would protect Britain from a repeat of the elective dictatorship of the Thatcher era – a distant prospect now, perhaps, but not necessarily so in five years’ time. However imperfect its proportionality, it would be at least a significant step towards fairness in the electoral system: more votes would count. And once it was in place it could at least be improved.

In other words, it’s a case of supporting the bad against the worse – a bit like voting Labour at election time, in fact.

Saturday, 3 October 1998


Paul Anderson, review of Robin Cook by John Kampfner (Gollancz, £16.99), Tribune, 3 October 1998

As instant political biographies go, John Kampfner’s Robin Cook is not bad. Too many examples of the genre are poorly researched, badly written hagiographies. Kampfner’s book is thorough, well crafted and for the most part balanced.

It is particularly good on Cook’s career before he became Foreign Secretary last year. Of course, there are a few errors of fact. Contrary to Kampfner’s belief, Kingsley Martin was not editor of the New Statesman in 1964 when Cook started reading it; and cruise missiles arrived in Britain in 1983, not 1980 as he states. But in context these are minor mistakes: on the important things, Kampfner’s research is meticulous.

His account of Cook’s formative years in the 1960s and 1970s, as student politician, Edinburgh councillor and radical back-bench MP, is superb; and he negotiates with aplomb the intricacies of Labour’s debates and internal power struggles in the 1980s and early 1990s. On Cook’s longstanding anti-militarism, his changing attitudes to devolution and Europe, his Keynesian interventionism in economic policy and his conversion to the cause of proportional representation, Kampfner is excellent.

His most revealing chapter is on Cook’s dithering after John Smith’s death over whether to stand against Tony Blair for the Labour leadership and his belated decision to jump on the Blair bandwagon. There is a strong case for believing that Cook’s failure of nerve was far more important than Gordon Brown’s at the same time. In spring 1994, Brown was in the political doldrums inside the Labour Party because of his caution in economic policy, while Cook’s reputation was riding high on the strength of his handling of the arms-to-Iraq scandal. Had Cook declared his intention to stand early – well, who knows? Kampfner has the sense not to answer this question directly, but he does make it clear that there were plenty of people who took Cook’s chances very seriously.

On Cook as Foreign Secretary, the book is less satisfactory. Kampfner tells the story competently enough, and much of his appraisal of Cook’s first year-and-a-bit in office is fair. He is undoubtedly right that the Foreign Secretary has had a torrid time in the press – particularly over his love life (a story retold here at unnecessary length) but also because of supposed “gaffes” over Kashmir, Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine, and Sierra Leone. It is also incontrovertible that Cook has been frozen out of decision-making on European economic and monetary union and that he has been over-ruled on arms sales to Indonesia. As a loyal member of the government, he has been unable to act in public as a tribune of the Labour left.

But Kampfner is far too ready to write Cook off. The truth is that nothing that has gone wrong for the Foreign Secretary has irreversibly damaged his standing. His bad press over Israeli settlements and Sierra Leone was not deserved; and the worst should soon be over as far as publicity about his love life is concerned. He also has substantial achievements to his name: his role in normalising relations with Europe, his part in restraining the gung-ho instincts of Blair and Bill Clinton over Iraq and his changes to the culture of the Foreign Office.

Perhaps most important, Blair knows that he cannot get rid of him. Cook on the back benches as the figurehead the parliamentary left so obviously now lacks would be a nightmare for the Prime Minister. So he seems guaranteed a senior position for the foreseeable future, most likely continuing as Foreign Secretary but just possibly becoming Chancellor if Gordon Brown proves a disaster. If Blair opts for proportional representation for the Commons, moreover, Cook will become a crucial ally in Cabinet.

All of which is to say that Kampfner’s downbeat conclusion – “The man on whom so many had pinned their hopes in opposition had found himself a victim in government” – could all too easily look dated in a year’s time. I certainly hope so.