John Rentoul’s column in today’s Independent is worth reading. Its eye catching headline questions the Conservatives’ reputation as ‘the stupid party’, suggesting that Tories’ calm approach to electoral reform suggests a long-term mentality.
In contrast, Labour’s 1980s enthusiasm for tweaking the voting system has been rekindled, just as the party prepares for another prolonged spell in opposition.
Rentoul is implying that the government’s attitude to the issue is purely reactive.
During the vast majority of its years in power the Labour party has been satisfied with an arrangement which worked in its favour. Now that defeat is imminent, and Liberal Democrats’ support is sought, Gordon Brown has thrown his weight behind a shift to Alternative Vote.
In contrast, although the Conservative party requires a much greater share of the vote than Labour, in order to command a substantial majority, David Cameron proposes less fundamental changes.
The Tories favour fewer MPs in the House of Commons and hope to standardise constituency sizes, more consistently, across the UK. But first past the post will remain the bedrock of Westminster elections under the Conservative party. Cameron plans merely to tweak the electoral system - even though it is weighted against his party.
The Liberal Democrats favour full proportional representation and the issue is often cited as a likely deal maker - in the result of a hung parliament. If either of the larger parties wants to form a coalition with the Lib Dems, flexibility on a new voting system is a probable price.
But PR, or AV for that matter, does not represent an insignificant concession. Implementing either would change significantly the constitutional topography of this country.
The formation of government by a single party would become a rarity, rather than the norm. And although, ostensibly, this would ensure a more representative democracy, in reality the electorate would be deprived of clarity of choice and accountability.
Under a coalition, the business of running the country increasingly depends on deals brokered behind the scenes. Every policy decision is reliant upon negotiation, compromise and, inevitably, fudge. Governments struggle to develop coherent and purposeful programmes.
David Cameron is ingrained with conservatism in the most authentic sense. He is not opposed to change, but remains cautious about its possible consequences. The modern Conservative party is inclined to weigh carefully the case for constitutional reform, whereas Labour has preferred to rush in and attempt to sort out any resultant mess later.
Only one approach is stupid and it doesn’t conform to the cliché.