Hattersley the prodigal

Stuart Weir
9 March 2010

Roy Hattersley told a packed hall at the Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge that he had changed his mind on proportional representation. He was scornful about the term “electoral reform” - no one electoral system was better than the others - but he now believed that elections to the House of Commons should be proportional – and critically that the Labour Party’s underlying cause would be best served by such a shift.

Hattersley is a great one-man show. He was on stage for nigh on three hours, speaking first – without notes – and then answering a host of questions. His theme was that the Labour Party had to adopt a firm ideological position based on equality, arguing that it was only through equality that people would enjoy true freedom (he once wrote a book on this).

His argument was that Labour fudged its basic commitment to equality and other public goods because the party felt the need to appeal as widely as possible in its search for a parliamentary majority under first past the post. Hattersley illustrated this theme at one point with a pointed anecdote. He told us that he had received a memo from Patricia Hewitt when she was Neil Kinnock’s publicity chief congratulating him on the speeches he had been making (a brief contemptuous harrumph here), but saying that she noticed he had given continuous emphasis to equality. Could he instead say “fairness”?

The party would be better off campaigning openly for what it believed in a PR election and then with a substantial presence in Parliament presumably entering into coalition or possibly taking power as a minority government (I was at the back of the hall and couldn’t get a question in to clarify this question).

It is ironic that Hattersley of all Labour politicians should come out for PR given his fierce hostility to Charter 88 and rubbishing of the very idea. I don’t suppose we can expect any sort of apology and anyway I am more than pleased to welcome the prodigal into our midst. I do hope however that he will have a go at his party’s MPs and policy-makers and try and persuade them not to see the party’s future in majoritarian party terms, but rather in their ability to achieve their basic goals. A more honest Labour Party could refresh British politics.

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