Desperate times

Could this be the last Labour government? DAVID CONNOLLY looks at the Compass group’s call for electoral reform

The left wing pressure group Compass has an impressive record of campaigning on a wide range of issues, attempting, with some success, to challenge the neo-liberal agenda that shapes much of government policy. Whatever the outcome of the next election the organisation will undoubtedly be at the forefront of the debate about the Labour Party’s future.

In its recent pamphlet, The Last Labour Government, Compass raises the prospect of a Conservative government reducing the number of parliamentary seats by 10 per cent – with a disproportionate effect on Labour’s urban representation – and renewing the Tories’ historic attack on the unions’ financial support for Labour at a time when the party constantly teeters on the brink of bankruptcy.

Add the prospect of an independent Scotland no longer sending MPs to Westminster and the future begins to look desperate for Labour, hence the title of the publication – which does not even include a question mark.

The authors argue that only a commitment to hold a referendum on proportional representation – the Jenkins Commission’s Alternative Vote Plus is the preferred system – on the same day as the general election can save the party from disaster. They believe this would alter ‘the likely outcome of the next election from a comfortable Tory win into the terrain of a hung parliament’. They call this ‘a game changer’ which is an extraordinary claim to make given the general public’s lack of interest in politics, especially its more esoteric aspects – and proportional representation is surely one of those.

However, Compass argue that proportional representation would open up ‘the political system to new voices and end the tyranny of middle England which concentrates every message on a few fickle voters in a handful of swing seats’. This, they argue, would force the left to ‘build a consensus for lasting social democratic change’.

That is as may be, but it was recently reported in the Guardian that senior ministers were having serious talks with Gordon Brown about legislation to ensure a referendum on electoral reform six months after the election. Brown is said to be interested in the idea, although of course he is often interested in ideas that end up going nowhere.

Perhaps this pamphlet is closer to the way some Labour people are now thinking than we might, at first, imagine. Desperate times, desperate measures.

The Last Labour Government – Why only a referendum on electoral reform can save the party now is available to download from the Compass website.