Tuesday, 23 September 2008

LibDems would accept non-PR compromise, says Lamb

Norman Lamb, LibDem frontbench spokesman on Health, stated publicly last night what most senior LibDems think: that the Alternative Vote would be an electoral reform compromise worth having.

Peter Hain was running late for the event, but he had a good opening line.

I am sorry for being late. But before I came here, I thought I had better go and give a speech on electoral reform.

This generated a hearty cheer from Lamb on the platform, as well as applause and laughter from much (if not all) of the audience.

To which Hain said:

But wait until you hear what it was. I am for the Alternative Vote - and not for proportional representation.

To which Lamb shouted: "We'll take that. We'll take that" from the platform.

This has long been the perfectly sensible position of most of the LibDem frontbench, though they may have difficulties convincing their party that AV is a step in the right direction if the holy grail of STV can not be gained. (Indeed Vince Cable offered a clear hint about that at the Fabian/CentreForum meeting on last year's fringe).

Still, the LibDem position is irrelevant without a Labour move on electoral reform. There is a pretty strong Labour consensus for the Alternative Vote among many of the advocates for PR (such as John Denham), long-standing PR opponents such as Jack Straw, and others like Ed Balls who had seemed somewhat agnostic on the constitutional enthusiasms of both sides of this debate.

Tony Blair failed with his Lab-Lib agenda. Gordon Brown missed a massive opportunity last summer to pursue this reform agenda from a position of strength (when I was among those pushing the argument). Its much harder to do it in the current political climate (even if, ironically AV would not do anything in the short-term for Labour at current levels of unpopularity, though might well help the reluctant LibDems to defend against the Tories).

But the deal that could be done is pretty clear. And it is one that all of those who muse about a "progressive consensus" and a "progressive century" may regret passing on, for a very long time to come.

(Though this will certainly cheer up Emily Thornberry of Islington, who successfully disrupted any of this Lib-Lab love-in nonsense with some tribal LibDem-bashing from the floor. She was kind enough to offer me a not totally sincere apology later on at the Guardian party, but succeeded in setting a partisan tone for the floor debate).


James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

You are right to say that a deal could have been made in the past but Labour botched it. You are sadly wrong however to say that AV is a viable option now. There is simply no way that Labour can introduce AV this side of a general election (no matter what the fantasists may insist otherwise).

If there is a hung parliament after a general election, then the Parliamentary arithmetic will be such that the Lib Dems will have everything to gain by holding out for full PR and everything to lose by settling for AV.

But really, it shouldn't - and probably won't - come about as a result of any bi-partisan deal, which will always look grubby. The only real prospect of a compromise would be to hold an independent process and let the public decide. Such a process is likely to result in a form of PR.

It is no surprise that many of the opponents of PR within the Lib Dem front bench want to "compromise" with AV - it is a smokescreen for them getting what they want in the first place. But the idea that Simon Hughes, Lembit Opik et al represent the "sensible wing" is a little laughable.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks. What about Vince C? Surely he is the sensible wing?

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

Sensible is as sensible does, so no (although I've never heard him state that - primary source?).

I notice you aren't rebutting the argument.