It isn’t often that I agree with David Cameron about much. But when the Prime Minister accused Labour of “opportunism” after the party announced its opposition to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, he was absolutely right.
Last week I met a senior figure within the Labour Party, ostensibly to discuss Labour’s tactics in some key marginals during the general election campaign as part of some research I am undertaking. Inevitably, conversation turned to the Liberal Democrats’ fortunes and their prospects in government and my Labour friend shared, with obvious self-satisfaction, her view that the Lib Dems were “finished” as a result of being “locked into” a coalition they would inevitably be tainted by and that the referendum on AV would certainly be lost.
“Does that mean you’ll be campaigning for a ‘no’ vote?” I asked.
“But why? The Labour Party promised AV in their manifesto and would presumably have delivered on it if they’d won. What’s changed?”
“It’s not AV itself that we’re opposed to, it’s the other elements of the Bill we’re concerned about such as the redrawing of constituency boundaries to favour the Tories.”
I explained that the Bill, if passed, would allow for a referendum to take place on a change to the voting system as well as legislating for a reduced parliament and equalisation of constituency size. As the result of the referendum will only determine the electoral system used and will not in itself impact the shape and number of constituencies, I pointed out that I could understand why Labour might oppose certain elements of the Bill, but could see no reason to campaign for a ‘no’ vote in a referendum – especially a referendum with the potential to introduce reform to which Labour was supposedly committed. I suggested this tactic amounted to disingenuous and dishonest tribal politics and that opportunities for change were being lost as the price of small-minded political gameplaying. As Cameron said, this is raw, unadulterated opportunism.
To which the response was something along the lines of “there’s no way we can work with the Lib Dems at the moment”.
It is a great shame that Labour have chosen to go down this route. They needn’t have. Jack Straw is on record as saying that “If it had just been about the AV referendum, there would have been no difficulty in getting this bill through...what they have done is added to this bill their very, very partisan proposals effectively for gerrymandering boundaries...We are not arguing about the equalisation of seats. We are arguing about the unnecessary reduction in the size of the House of Commons and we are particularly arguing about the way in which they are proposing to go about redrawing the boundaries." To which I have a certain amount of sympathy; as a Lib Dem I’m not overly happy about manipulations of constituencies designed to help any one party. But it’s the wrong tactic. Firstly, it’s one thing to vote down a parliamentary bill; quite another to actively campaign in a referendum against endorsed party policy. Secondly, it makes Labour appear inflexible, small-minded, dishonest and unprincipled. And, thirdly, deciding not to work with the Lib Dems is the wrong way to damage the coalition.
Labour could achieve far more by reminding the Lib Dems about their recent history, and the shared work between the two parties. Admittedly, Labour were so strong in parliamentary terms that if they had so wished, they could have introduced a referendum on PR at any point during their 13 years in government. They didn’t deliver, in spite of good working relationships between Blair and Ashdown, Cook and Maclennan, and Dewar and Wallace. However, a positive relationship between Labour and the Lib Dems delivered a more proportional voting system for European elections, the use of the Additional Member System (AMS) for elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for Scottish local elections. While I recognise the Liberal Democrat influence behind these developments, I am also sufficiently realistic to appreciate that Labour involvement was key and that such developments would never have taken place under a Conservative-led administration.
There remains the very real and tantalising possibility for positive change. For that to happen, Labour’s role will again be of the utmost importance. The Conservatives are likely to campaign for a ‘no’ vote (something Labour seem to have overlooked in terms of tactical opportunities) and labour opposition, or even ambivalence, would surely result in the AV vote being lost. Unlike the senior labour figure I referred to earlier, I could not see a ‘no’ outcome as positive for Labour, whatever its impact on coalition relations. It would simply represent another missed opportunity from a directionless, toothless party.
Labour have to decide whether they actually support AV and if they are serious about being a force for change. If so, they could pursue the tactic of painting themselves as the champions of electoral reform and of AV in particular, putting forward amendments to the Bill in its current form with the potential to divide the coalition. Even if this tactic was unsuccessful a willingness to take moral leadership of the ‘yes’ campaign could be a useful propaganda tool and renewed co-operation between Labour and the Lib Dems would have the effect of at least weakening the relationship between the coalition partners. Alternatively, and more ambitiously, Labour could attempt to win over the Lib Dems by tabling an amendment calling for a genuine option of PR to be included on the referendum ballot paper, which would present the Lib Dem leadership with an awkward dilemma. Certainly, if Labour’s strategy is to damage the coalition, offering Lib Dems the tantalising opportunity for PR has a greater chance of success than cynically backtracking on manifesto commitments.
Cameron was right to point out that Labour were playing an opportunistic game. Simon Hughes was furious that Labour has “chosen to say no for opposition's sake" and the Electoral Reform Society attacked what it saw as “sabotage dressed up with a few principles". They are, of course, all right. But what they failed to notice was that Labour’s tactics are also at best naive and at worst plain stupid.
There are many opportunities here for Labour if they are canny enough to grasp them. Refusing to work with the Lib Dems is counter-productive, fails to take account of historic working relationships between the two parties and only reinforces the relationship between the Lib Dems and Conservatives in coalition. The position of the Conservatives on AV means that Labour are in a powerful position to influence the outcome of the referendum. They must choose to do the right thing.