Friday, 7 January 2000


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 7 January 2000

If the past week's press is to be believed, it seems that campaigners for proportional representation for the House of Commons will not be able to count of the support of Tony Blair in the run-up to Labour's promised referendum on the issue.

A lot of people in the pro-PR camp appear to be surprised by this, but I am not. I have been sceptical for a long time about the strength of Blair's commitment to constitutional reform. The three main elements of the constitutional reform programme on which Labour was elected in 1997 – devolution and reform of the House of Lords as well as the PR referendum – were all policies he inherited when he succeeded John Smith as party leader in 1994. And Blair was never very keen on any of them.

In opposition between 1994 and 1997, he consistently gave the impression that devolution was something he was lumbered with. He jettisoned Labour's tentative plans for elected English regional assemblies and bounced the party into accepting pre-devolution referendums in Scotland and Wales. In 1997, after Labour won its massive general election landslide, the Scots and Welsh voted for devolution, and legislation was duly passed to create the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. But the lengths to which the Labour leadership in London went to ensure both institutions were run by ultra-loyalists made a mockery of the principle of devolution of power.

Similarly, on Lords reform, Labour under Blair has drifted from a clear commitment to an elected second chamber – albeit introduced as the second stage in a two-stage process, the first being abolition of the voting rights of hereditary peers – to a position in which some hereditaries will stay and an elected second chamber appears the least likely long-term outcome.

Meanwhile, the PR referendum has been put off until after the next election – and, although Alastair Campbell this week made it clear (just about) that the promise of a referendum will be kept, it has become increasingly obvious that Blair will not be throwing his weight behind changing the voting system for the Commons.

The key development here is not the fact, splashed all over last week's papers after a Millbank leak, that many more submissions to Labour's internal consultation on the Jenkins Commission backed the first-past-the-post status quo than supported Jenkins' proposed system of "AV-plus". Nearly all the pro-FPTP submissions were pre-printed postcards delivered to Labour headquarters in a single box by the engineers' union.

Far more telling is the absence of proposals for PR for local councils from the government's local government legislation. Nine months ago, the word from Number Ten Downing Street was that Blair had been convinced that, along with elected mayors and cabinet-style council executives, PR was essential to reinvigorate local government – not least as a means of getting rid of corrupt and sclerotic "one-party states". But when the local government reform package was published at the end of last year, PR was nowhere to be seen.

Why the change of heart? One reason appears to be the implacable opposition to PR of John Prescott, whose giant Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions includes local government among its responsibilities. But there have also been reports – anonymously sourced of course – that Blair himself has now come to the conclusion that PR is a bad thing at any level because it inevitably means doing deals with small parties that wield inordinate power.

This could all be tendentious spin, but I have a hunch that there is more to it than that. Blair has never been an advocate of PR even in private, and in [itals]Realpolitik[end itals] terms there seems to be little reason for Labour to introduce it at either local or national level in the foreseeable future. On one hand, it is at odds with the centralising managerialist thrust of Labour's council reforms. On the other, the thumping Commons majority given Labour by FPTP grants him an extraordinary freedom of manoeuvre. There appears, moreover, to be little likelihood of that majority being significantly diminished at the next general election.

Yet the case for PR remains as strong as ever. Local PR is necessary not only to tackle the nepotism and unaccountability of local "one-party states" but as a counterweight to powerful council executives. For the Commons, AV-plus is by no means perfect as an electoral system. But it would end three of the worst characteristics of FPTP – the existence of large areas of the country in which vast numbers of people never get an MP from the party they vote for, the focus of all electioneering on affluent voters in a handful of key seats, and the inbuilt bias of the system towards the Tories.

Labour's neanderthal tribalists should not forget that the 1997 election is only the third time since 1922 that Labour has won a comfortable Commons majority. The Tories have won 11 comfortable majorities in the same period.

Saturday, 1 January 2000


Paul Anderson, review of Stafford Cripps: A Political Life by Simon Burgess (Gollancz, £25), New Times, January 2000

For nearly 20 years, Stafford Cripps, who lived from 1889 to 1952, played a crucial role in British left politics.

A successful barrister and country squire, married to an heiress, he came to socialism through Christianity and was head-hunted into the Labour Party by Herbert Morrison in 1929. His rise to political prominence was phenomenal: he was made solicitor general by Ramsay MacDonald even before he became an MP in an early 1931 by-election.

After the debacle of MacDonald's decision to form a national government and Labour's subsequent general election humiliation, Cripps turned sharply to the left. For the rest of the 1930s he was far and away the Labour left's brightest star. He was the leading light in the Socialist League, the main left organisation within the Labour Party. In 1936-37, he played a key role in the Unity Campaign, in which Labour left-wingers joined the Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party to urge left unity against fascism – the only lasting result of which was the founding of Tribune. Subsequently, Cripps was the most senior Labour advocate of an anti-Tory 'popular front' – for which he was expelled from the Labour Party in 1939.

Throughout the 1930s, Cripps was staunchly pro-Soviet – he even defended the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939 – and largely because of this was chosen by Churchill in 1940 to act as British ambassador to Moscow.

The appointment resurrected his political career. When he returned to Britain in 1942, he was welcomed as the personification of the Anglo-Russian alliance against Hitler – and was in a strong enough position to force his way into the war cabinet as leader of the House of Commons (though not, as he hoped, to oust Churchill).

Cripps served successfully as minister for aircraft production from 1942 to 1945 and was allowed back into the Labour Party just before the 1945 election. In Clement Attlee's government he was made president of the Board of Trade and then, in 1947, chancellor of the exchequer. In both roles, he proved a prudent pragmatist. When he resigned from the government in 1950, on grounds of ill health, he was widely praised even by erstwhile political enemies for his part in securing Britain's postwar recovery.

Simon Burgess's new biography is a competent piece of work, thoroughly researched and generally well written. It is certainly the best life of Cripps so far, particularly on his time in Moscow and his ministerial career.

The problem is that Burgess is so much more sympathetic to Cripps post-Moscow than Cripps pre-Moscow, and his commentary on the 1930s left is marked throughout with exasperation. Although Burgess makes it clear why much of the Labour establishment thought that Cripps was, as Hugh Dalton put it, a 'dangerous political lunatic', in his exasperation (understandable as it may be) he never really succeeds in explaining why so many on the left looked on Cripps as an inspirational leader.