It’s enough to give the Daily Telegraph kittens. Gordon Brown and Ming Campbell, fixing the future of Westminster on their trips home to devolved Scotland. Well, they do talk, you know – a lot.
Campbell and Brown sit for neighbouring Fife constituencies, and they regularly discuss politics on the shuttle to and from London. Recently, a recurring theme has been “keeping the progressive forces of British politics together”.
Now, Gordon Brown is, of course, opposed to proportional representation. But the prospects of their being some kind of hung parliament deal between Labour and the Liberal Democrats over PR may greater than Martin Kettle suggested in his column in Saturday’s Guardian, even though, as he says: “Most Labour MPs oppose electoral reform on the turkeys-not-voting-for-Christmas principle, while a hard core of die-hard opponents would do everything they could to prevent it”.
Well, exactly the same could have been said about Scotland, but here the turkeys did indeed vote for an early Christmas. Labour accepted electoral reform for the Scottish parliament as a result of participation in the cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention in the late 1980s. Scottish Labour MPs and councillors were profoundly opposed to PR then, but as a result of the moral pressure exerted by Scottish public opinion through the convention, they were forced to accept the additional member system for Holyrood.
And here’s the extraordinary thing: a majority of Labour MPs and Labour MSPs still oppose PR in principle, but they are still voting for an early Christmas. One of the achievements of the Scottish Parliament has been the legislation, passed in the last session, introducing electoral reform for local government.
In May, Labour will lose control of up to half its Scottish councils, when proportional voting is introduced for council elections. Hundreds of long standing Labour councillors will be looking for work. Edinburgh, which has been Labour since 1984, will almost certainly fall to a Libdem-led coalition.
This is something no one could have imagined ten years ago: that Labour would willingly renounce its hegemony over local Scotland. Many Scottish councils have, for generations, been effectively one party states. In 2000 in Glasgow, Labour won 94% of the seats (74 out of 79) on just 54% of the popular vote. Factionalism and cronyism was the only game in town hall. Not any more.
Right now, Westminster is rather like an old-style Labour authority, run by a Labour clique, exploiting patronage, secure in an absurdly inflated majority. This is not democracy, but elective dictatorship. There is an alternative.
Martin recycles the conventional wisdom that coalitions are unstable and provisional: “The deals, whipping and late night parliamentary dramas that go with minority governments will not restore trust in politics”. Well, admittedly, restoring trust in government after years of sleaze, dodgy dossiers and spin is going to be a hard task.
However, the Scottish experience shows is quite possible for coalition or minority governments to provide constructive and effective legislative programmes. Moreover, Holyrood shows that the junior partner in a coalition can have considerable influence, which is why thinking Liberal Democrats remain very keen on extending reform to Westminster.
But Martin is right to say that a hung parliament in Westminster at the next election will not, of itself, lead to electoral reform. But it would provide the circumstances under which a determined cross party campaign – a UK Constitutional Convention on the reform of parliament – could make a big impact.
And Brown? It was division of the progressive forces of British politics that allowed Margaret Thatcher to rule for 18 years on a minority of votes. Labour may not like it, but if the choice is permanent opposition – as in the Thatcher years – or uniting the progressive forces to lock the Tories out of government indefinitely, I think Gordon Brown could be persuaded.