Opinion Articles

If you liked it then you should've put a ring on it

  • RSS Feed Icon

In a speech launching the Labour Yes to AV campaign, Ed Miliband welcomed the proposed reform as something that 'will help us build a fairer and better politics'. It was also, he said, consistent with 'Labour's history of campaigning for change'. Miliband even implied Ramsay MacDonald's ill-fated second administration, the one elected in 1929, had favoured the Alternative Vote. Only, he suggested, the formation of the Conservative-led National Government in 1931 prevented Labour from introducing the kind of change now being put to the British people.

Quite whether AV will lead to a better politics is moot. However what is Labour's 'history of campaigning for change' of which Miliband spoke and is his interpretation of the MacDonald government's attitude to AV justified?

One of the most surprising characteristics of New Labour, given its emphasis on all things modern, was its desire to locate itself in history: its own interpretation of history, of course. In his early days as leader, Tony Blair was keen to claim that New Labour was the living expression of what the party's founders had stood for. His leftwing critics nonetheless believed Blair betrayed their party's history. This is part of a more general and well-established trend. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have also used the past to validate their current positions. In some ways, history has become a rummage bag from which contemporary politicians can pluck any fact they consider useful to justify themselves, with greater or lesser plausibility.

Miliband's invocation of Labour's 'history of campaigning for change' is certainly not the most egregious example of politicians' abuse of history. But, certainly when it comes to electoral reform, he is very close to being disingenuous. For - just like any other party - Labour's attitude to electoral change has been strongly informed by self-interest. Just as Liberal criticism of first past the post increased as that party's ability to prosper under it waned, so Labour's interest in electoral reform has varied depending on how many MPs were returned by the current system.

Certainly, after the Attlee government won its big majority in 1945 and enacted its ambitious programme of reforms, Labour interest in change collapsed; even the leader of the left Aneurin Bevan praised the 'revolutionary quality' of Britain's unwritten constitution. It was in the 1980s - a decade in which Conservative governments carried all before them on barely more than 43 per cent of the vote - that some Labour figures began to think more seriously about changing the electoral system. Favouring reform also meant that Labour opened channels to the Liberal Democrats, thereby encouraging anti-Conservative tactical voting and keeping them sweet in case they were required to form a coalition.

Hence Labour went into the 1997 general election promising a commission on electoral reform and a referendum based on its recommendations. The result was the Jenkins Commission, which reported in 1998. It proposed a hybrid 'AV plus' system, in which most MPs would be elected under AV and a minority through proportional representation. But Labour was by now sitting on a 179-seat majority and most Cabinet members believed this would see the party through at least one further election. It was only when, facing defeat in 2010, and Labour once again needed the Lib Dems, that Gordon Brown changed his mind and put AV into the party's manifesto.

Ed Miliband may or may not be a genuine enthusiast for AV. But even in his speech launching Labour's pro-AV campaign he conceded that it was no panacea. More significantly, he said Labour's support for AV 'says something about the kind of party I believe Labour must be', specifically an 'inclusive' and a 'change' party.

In other words, Miliband seems to see AV as the good-looking friend you stand next to in the hope that their attractiveness will rub off on you. But attractive to whom? Win or lose the referendum, Miliband clearly hopes his support for AV will make Labour irresistible to Liberal Democrat voters and MPs disenchanted with the Coalition.

And so we come to Miliband's claims about the 1929-31 Labour government. The minority MacDonald administration certainly established the Ullswater Committee to look into electoral reform. But it only did so because it was a minority government, one dependent on Liberal support. Having looked at the evidence held at the National Archives, I can tell you that by this point most in the party believed Labour could prosper under first past the post and feared AV would prevent it ever forming a majority government. Moreover, it is generally agreed that so far as MacDonald was concerned Ullswater's function was to stall the question of electoral reform - and so encourage the Liberals to continue supporting Labour in the Commons.

Just like Blair before 1997, Ed Miliband now says that 'the tragedy of British political history has been the split in the progressive vote', by which he means the Labour and the Liberal Democrat vote. Miliband's support for AV, just like Blair's apparent enthusiasm for electoral reform before winning his 179-seat majority, is part of a strategic self-interested game Labour has played with the Liberals and Liberal Democrats since the 1920s. It is hardly evidence of Labour's 'history of campaigning for change'.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


Papers By Author

Papers by Theme


Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!

To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.

About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More