Friday, 5 May 2000


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 5 May 2000

One of the most dangerous temptations of writing for a political weekly is to anticipate Thursday's news. Tribune, like the New Statesman and the Spectator, goes to press on Wednesday, but most readers don't get their copies until Friday. It is sometimes difficult to resist referring to events that are "on diary" for Thursdays as if they have already happened.

But resist one must – because there's nothing more humiliating for a weekly than getting a Thursday story wrong. My old mate Steve Platt still shudders when he thinks of the issue of the New Statesman (of which he was then editor) that arrived on subscribers' doormats the day after the 1992 general election. Its cover story was a big piece by Sarah Baxter, then the Statesman's political editor, declaring that John Major was yesterday's man.

So I'm not going to congratulate Ken Livingstone on his easy victory in the London mayoral election. By the time you read this he might just have been abducted by aliens from outer space.


On a different matter entirely, I am disturbed to hear that opponents of electoral reform for the House of Commons are making a concerted effort to get Labour conference this autumn to ditch the party's promise of a referendum on the voting system.

The issue is currently in the hands of a party policy commission, which has been sounding out party members' opinions on the system of "AV-plus" proposed by Lord Jenkins' Independent Commission on the Voting System. The policy commission is due to report to Labour's National Policy Forum in July, and the word is that it will recommend retention of the referendum pledge.

But supporters of first-past-the-post think they have found a way of killing off the referendum. If they get enough backing at the July policy forum for a minority report recommending abandonment of the referendum, it will automatically make it on to the Labour conference agenda. If it is debated, such a report stands a good chance of being carried at the conference by the block votes of a handful of large trade unions.

As regular readers of this column will know, I am a supporter of proportional representation for the Commons – so it is hardly surprising that I am unhappy at the prospect of the referendum being ditched. The referendum is the only hope of getting even an approximation of PR in the foreseeable future.

But that's not the only reason I'm distressed at the first-past-the-post lobby's antics. The point about the promise of a referendum, first made by John Smith, is that it is a pledge to "let the people decide" on the electoral system they want. The first-past-the-post lobby is doing its damnedest to ensure that the people are [itals]not[close itals] allowed to decide – that the decision is fixed by a cabal of trade union delegates at Labour conference.

Of course, every Labour Party member has the right to attempt to change any aspect of party policy, and I'm all in favour of the party conference having real debates on substantive issues. But if the first-past-the-post lobby prevails it will be a victory for anti-democratic machine politics of the worst kind. What's more, it will look that way not only to the Liberal Democrats – whose support Labour may well need after the next general election – but also to most individual Labour Party members and, most importantly, to the voters. The anti-referendum campaign should be sent away with a flea in its ear.


Finally, although I know it's bad form for columnists to use their privileged position to respond to critical letters, Judith Orr's missive last week attacking my "venomous" column a fortnight ago on Tony Cliff, the late leader of the Socialist Workers Party, deserves a reply.

She says that, "far from putting people off revolutionary politics", Cliff inspired "successive generations to socialist ideas". I wouldn't dispute the second part of that statement. Indeed, I'm happy to place on record that, according to a reliable source who was for years a senior SWPer, Cliff's party has managed to recruit 800 to 1,000 people every year since the mid-1970s. The problem, however, according to the same source, is that the same number have left it every year. By my reckoning, that's at least 20,000 put-off people – but maybe my maths is insufficiently revolutionary.