Friday, 14 July 2000


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 14 July 2000

I’m afraid you won't see me this Saturday if you're going to the "Democratic socialism in the 21st century" conference at TUC Congress House.

It's not that I've given up on democratic socialism, which remains as good a thing this century as it was last. It's just that I'm fed up with left-wing borathons in general, and think that this one in particular is based on a singularly specious premise – namely, that Labour should be concentrating a substantial proportion of its fire in the run-up to the general election on the Liberal Democrats.

One of the key points in the statement put out by the organisers of the conference is "rejection of 19th-century Liberalism" – by which of course they actually mean "No to co-operation with Charles Kennedy!" - and one of its main sessions is on "Defeating the Liberal Democrats".

Sorry, comrades, but this is what the New Labour spin-doctors would call "a load of bollocks".

Of course, there are lots of urban areas where the Liberal Democrats have in recent years become serious challengers to Labour in local government, in some cases ousting Labour from power. I wouldn't expect Labour activists in, say, Liverpool, Islington, Sheffield or Oldham to feel very friendly toward the Lib Dems. As it happens, I myself don't like them very much in Tower Hamlets, where memories of the local Liberals' disgraceful racist campaigning in the early 1990s are still fresh.

But these parochial rivalries are wholly beside the point. At national level - where it matters rather more - the imperative is to put all hostility to the Lib Dems aside until after the next genera election.

Put bluntly, Labour does not need to "defeat" the Liberal Democrats at the next general election. It needs Lib Dem supporters to vote tactically for Labour where the Labour candidate is better placed than the Lib Dem to defeat the Tory - as they did in 1997. Without Lib Dem tactical voting, Labour will lose scores of seats, perhaps even its parliamentary majority. Self-interest dictates that Labour puts its energies into offering the hand of friendship to Charles Kennedy - and that's even before it starts thinking about possible post-election coalition partners should things go really belly-up.

Unfortunately, last weekend saw Labour putting its relations with the Lib Dems in serious jeopardy, with a shabby stitch-up at the party's National Policy Forum on electoral reform. Faced with demands from a handful of trade union barons that Labour abandon its promise of a referendum on a more proportional system for elections to the House of Commons, Tony Blair agreed to kick the issue into touch.

Instead of backing a referendum in the next parliament on "AV-plus", the watered-down form of proportional representation recommended by Lord Jenkins's Independent Commission on the Voting System, the Forum adopted an amendment expressing "serious concerns about the acceptability" of the Jenkins system and putting off the referendum until - well, probably for ever.

According to the amendment, "Labour will allow the changes introduced for elections to the European and Scottish Parliaments and for the Welsh and London Assemblies to become familiar and allow time for all the consequences to be felt before deciding on any further proposals for electoral reform". Look out for further thoughts some time around 2015.

So far, Liberal Democrat leaders have affected an insouciant air over all this - but they are not well pleased, and I'm prepared to put money on the Lib Dem grassroots being very angry indeed once the news has sunk in that PR is off the agenda for the forseeable future.

For what it's worth, I'm pretty angry too. As regular readers of this column will know, I believe that PR for the Commons is essential if Britain's parliament is ever to regain the popular legitimacy it has been losing for the past 20-odd years.

I'm not going to rehearse all the arguments here yet again. But I do think that Blair has blown an opportunity that will not come around again for another generation. His casual agreement to indefinite postponement of the electoral reform referendum, along with his de facto acceptance that even a diluted form of PR is not a runner, confirms my long-standing suspicion that, deep down, he's a constitutional conservative who accepted what he did of Labour's constitutional reform agenda back in 1994 only because he had no choice.