Alan Johnson's bold move.

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alanjohnson.jpgSay what you like about the Health Secretary, but his call for PR is bold, eye-catching and hard to tag as obviously cynical. 

If he wanted to find a policy less well-designed to woo Labour MPs to a leadership campaign it'd be hard to find one. It's therefore a brave move, in the Sir Humphrey sense, for the heir apparent.

The system proposed, Jenkins' AV+, is certainly an improvement on the existing model, although less clear and less democratic than STV. 

It does favour the larger parties, in particular those perceived as the least worst in their constituency. Smarter Labour strategists continue to favour it because they assume that in the long term, Lib Dem votes will transfer to them in larger numbers. The current mood, in which Liberal backers tend to favour working with the Tories, will pass, they think.

There are also problems with holding the referendum on the same day as the General Election. First, if the PR vote passes, the constituency votes would then be counted in the same old undemocratic way on the same day. If the public accepts that first past the post is no longer the right system, surely they'd be reluctant to accept one more Parliament elected under it? Isn't this meant to be an answer to a crisis of legitimacy, rather than a way of revealing its depths?

The other problem with the scheme is that neither the referendum nor the general election would get the attention they deserve. In fact, despite the view that the public don't care one way or another about this issue, the political classes and political journalists certainly do, and any referendum would be likely to become the centrepiece of the whole show.

This could well be the point. The Tories are resolutely against, and although they seem to be coming out the expenses fiasco in better shape, this issue could well put them on the wrong side again. As Johnson just told the World At One:

"The reason [the Tories] don't like it is that it empowers you."

I'm sure he believes in the campaign: once we get fairer votes there's no going back, and no-one would back this purely for short term advantage. It seems pretty likely, though, that he's seeing principle and advantage align. Never a bad place for a politician to be.

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This page was published on May 25, 2009 12:11 PM.

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