In a speech launching the Labour Yes to AV campaign Ed Milband claimed that his support for electoral reform was consistent with ‘Labour’s history of campaigning for change’. Miliband implied Ramsay MacDonald’s ill-fated second administration had favoured AV, and that only the formation of the Conservative-led National Government in 1931 had prevented Labour from introducing the kind of change only now being put to the British people.
Miliband’s invocation of Labour’s ‘history of campaigning for change’ is certainly not the most egregious example of politicians’ abuse of history, but when it comes to electoral reform, he is 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 their 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 applied 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 took until 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 Labour opened channels to the Liberal Democrats, thereby encouraging anti-Conservative tactical voting and keeping them sweet in case they were required to create 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 report which in 1998 proposed a hybrid ‘AV plus’ system in which most MPs would be elected under AV and a minority through proportional representation.
But Labour in 1998 was sitting on a 179 seat majority and most Cabinet members believed this would see the party through at least one further election. As I predicted here 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.
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 did so only because it was a minority government, one dependent on Liberal support.
Having looked at the evidence held at the National Archive I can tell you that by this point most in the party believed Labour could proposer under First Past The Post. Many also believed, like the minister Frederick Pethick-Lawrence that AV ‘would postpone an absolute Labour majority – perhaps for a generation’ fearing Liberal and Conservative second preferences would go to each other, not Labour and ‘encourage weak-kneed electors who are anti-conservative (and to-day vote Labour because they see Liberals have no chance) to give first choice to Liberals and second to Labour’.
MacDonald himself accepted reform would not go down well with the party, as it implied that ‘we have fallen back upon the assumption that a progressive majority in Parliament would always have to be found by a combination which would either frankly be a Coalition with a sharing of offices, or a Government such as we have at present moment depending upon the support of Liberals’. As a consequence, so far as MacDonald was concerned Ullswater’s main function was to delay the government having to come to a decision on 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 self-interested game Labour has played since the 1920s. It is hardly evidence of Labour’s ‘history of campaigning for change’. If Labour liked AV so much it should have (and quite easily could have) enacted it.
An earlier version of this post appeared on the History and Policy website.