The "Blairism" strategy of the centre-left has brought ten years of power, thanks to a centralised leadership system attuned to the interests of middle Britain. Without Blair this system will no longer work. So will Labour now turn to electoral reform?by David Soskice / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
The tenth anniversary of Labour’s 1997 victory is a good moment to take stock of “Blairism” as a political strategy for the centre-left. When Gordon Brown takes over, he will face most of the same constraints imposed by Britain’s political and economic structures as Tony Blair did in 1997, but his response will have to be different from Blair’s. Blairism—with all its strengths and weaknesses—will not outlive the departure of the leader who made it possible. Labour after Blair needs to rethink how the centre-left will win and hold power—and it is likely that some form of proportional representation will be central to that thinking.
So what are the constraints of the British system? The first is electoral. Historically, majoritarian first-past-the-post systems have been biased against centre-left parties. In the second half of the 20th century, in advanced countries with a majoritarian system, centre-left governments have on average been in power for only one quarter of the time. By contrast, proportional representation has had an almost equal bias in favour of the centre-left, as seems confirmed by recent experience in New Zealand.
Why this strong bias? Divide the electorate into low, middle and higher income groups. With a majoritarian system, there are typically two main parties: centre-left and centre-right. To win, one of the two main parties has to capture enough of the middle-income vote—so, as is well-known, the competitive focus is on this middle class. (These categories are fuzzy, and correspond only vaguely to actual income bands. After adjusting for taxes and benefits, the poorest fifth of British households, where benefits make up 60 per cent of gross income, have an average income of £12,000; the richest fifth, including all higher-rate income tax-payers, have an average household income of £48,000. Between these two extremes we have the varied middle group, with average household income of £26,000.)
But here lies a fundamental problem in majoritarian systems. From the middle-class voter’s perspective, neither of the major parties represents just middle-class voters. Centre-left party activists often still seem hostile to middle-class aspiration, and unions play a big part in fundraising and policymaking; equally, centre-right parties tend to have close relations with wealthy donors, with business and with the ideological right. And even though the parties focus electorally on the middle-class voter, there is no legal commitment device that ensures that once elected it will be middle-class interests that the party has…