Observer
Still waiting outside Tony's big tent

Will the promise of building a radical twenty-first century be any more substantial than the Millennium Dome?

Andrew Rawnsley

Sunday January 9, 2000


Tony's big top is proving to be a flop with some of those who looked forward to its opening day with the keenest anticipation. I talk not of the much-reviled plastic canopy on the Greenwich peninsula. That great tent is supposed to be only the symbolic representation of the vaulting political construct designed to leave a legacy lasting far longer than a year.

The radical twenty-first century. That is Tony Blair's most extravagant promise, repeated again only in the last few days, to be a future-maker. The past 100 years belonged to the Conservatives. His soaring ambition is that the next 100 will belong to the forces of progress and light. He has spoken eloquently - and with every appearance of sincerity - about his Liberal heroes. He has presented himself as the divine-sent healer who can re-unite 'the two great streams of left-of-centre thought, socialism and liberalism, whose divorce did so much to weaken progressive politics.' The Tories would never again win four elections in a row with the support of just 40 per cent of the voters. Tomorrow would belong to the radicals, and every day after that, into conceivable time.

If this splendid idea was not put into his head by Lord Jenkins, the grandee of centrist politics certainly fertilised the notion in the course of his many soirées with the Prime Minister at Number 10. Eagerly was it believed in by Paddy Ashdown, who was understandably tantalised by the prospect of Liberal bums occupying Cabinet seats for the first time in more than 50 years. Now that Charles Kennedy is in charge, the Liberal Democrats find themselves in the position of some of the disappointed punters visiting the Dome. They have patiently queued for ages on the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime experience: the spectacle of a Prime Minister voluntarily deciding to share his power with another party. They have arrived at the entrance only to find that the sensation is suspended. There is no clear indication whether the closure is merely temporary - or permanent.

What I will say for certain is that there will be no referendum on changing the voting system for Westminster before the next election. That much is already clear and with it that the Prime Minister's word is not always his bond. Labour's tribalist tendency talk confidently of killing electoral reform forever - 'it's dead in the water' gloats the MP Fraser Kemp - at the autumn party conference. I expect Mr Blair to resist that. Never a man to make a decision immediately if it can be postponed until later, the Prime Minister may be in need of the Lib Dems some day. 'The Project is not dead,' says one of the few members of the Cabinet who has always believed in it. 'It drifts.'

The long-term Project has been a victim of its author's short-term success. It was never going to be easy to persuade a party with a majority of 180 that it needed to change the winner-takes-all system, and even less so when Labour is so assured of a second term in government. My Lord Jenkins and Captain Ashdown convinced themselves that they had privately converted the Prime Minister to electoral reform, but I suspect he was never quite as sure of his mind as they were. He did not want to say never to his Lib Dem friends, but nor did he ever quite say now. His lukewarmness to electoral reform has been further doused by the experience of Government. During the Kosovo War, the British Prime Minister, unlike most of his continental counterparts, did not have to consult a coali tion partner whenever he wanted to order a bombing run. Never under-estimate the shaping impact of wars on Prime Ministers. The war over Kosovo also turned Blair against Freedom of Information when he learnt from Bill Clinton that the Pentagon would put nothing sensitive on paper for fear of disclosure to the public.

The horse-trading with the Lib Dems in the Scottish Parliament and the elections to the European Parliament have also been seized upon by Labour's first-past-the-posters as damnations of electoral reform. They conveniently forget that PR was used in Scotland to make it next to impossible for the Nationalists ever to gain a majority in Edinburgh. Labour may be grateful for it after the next elections in Scotland. They deliberately overlook that, under first-past-the-post, Labour would have won even fewer seats in the European Parliament.

They may not have the facts, but the first-past-the-posters do command the numbers. As Labour has become hotter for ruling in glorious isolation, so the Liberal Democrats have become cooler about co-operation. Charles Kennedy will keep talking in the hope of extracting the consolation of electoral reform for local government. But the Liberal Democrats will increasingly define themselves less by their relationship with the Government, and more by their differences with it.

Members of Kennedy's party - and not just them - are wondering how much progress can be expected of a New Labour dominated century which begins with the curtailment of the right to trial by jury. In a tacit acknowledgement that his profile has so far been grass-hugging, tomorrow Charles Kennedy will begin a national tour campaigning on the core theme that there should be no more income tax cuts until public services have improved. He begins in Norfolk. Very flat, Norfolk. Like Mr Kennedy's polling ratings. The Lib Dem leader needs to raise his game, and give it bite, and he must do both urgently.

It will be invigorating for the Liberal Democrats, and healthier for democratic argument, when New Labour is challenged more aggressively by a party crusading for social justice and liberal values. Yet you can't help but notice that the people who are really delighted by the stalling of the Lab-Lib Project are shrewd Tories. William Hague's most sterling service to the Conservative Party is to lead such a hopeless Opposition that he has lulled Labour into complacency about changing the voting system. Though first-past-the-post massacred the Tories at the last election, it has otherwise served Conservatives tremendously well and progressives extremely woefully.

The Labour Party celebrates its hundredth birthday next month. The vital statistic to concentrate on is that, of all those years, it has spent just 22 of them in office. There will come a time when even this Government begins to get intimations of its own mortality. One of the minority of the Cabinet who combines sympathy for changing the system with the ability to take the large and long view believes that interest in electoral reform will revive 'in the second term when we face some real electoral adversity'. It is obviously likely that changing the voting system will suddenly have more appeal - even perhaps to John Prescott and Jack Straw - when they are staring into the eyes of defeat. The trouble with this calculation is that unpopular governments don't usually win referendums.

This is the Catch-22 of electoral reform. So long as Labour is popular, then the party will not be animated by the idea of altering the rules of the game. When Labour becomes unpopular, it will struggle to convince the people that the system should be changed. The time to have been surest was soon after New Labour came to power. As the sand dribbles through the glass, Tony Blair takes the risk that his radical twenty-first century will prove to be no more enduring than his benighted Dome.




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