Blair - CC / Flickr
Blair - CC / Flickr

As coalition negotiations endure between Tories and Lib Dems there’s much bemoaning the chance to reform the UK’s election system supposedly missed by Tony Blair in the years immediately after 1997.

If only Blair had been bold then, we would not be in the mess we’re in today goes the refrain, a line most stridently defended by staunch Lib Dems like my parents and, interestingly, by Timothy Garton Ash in Die Zeit (end of page 1, in German).

Just think a little about the situation Blair faced in those heady days with a majority of 150+. He knew Labour could win a couple more elections from that point, hence he had no incentive whatsoever to change the system, and indeed a bunch of Labour MPs who would have lost their seats that way had an incentive against reform.

In short Blair had an idea of what was right – election reform – but absolutely no incentive to act upon it. To argue that the late 1990s were a missed chance is to completely ignore how games are played within political parties. Altruism alone does not lead to decisions being taken, at least not in the Labour Party.

Now the game is different. Labour needs reform if it is to have any prospect of power any time soon. So the incentive and the altruistic choice are aligned. OK, making this happen in the middle of an economic crisis and coalition talks is perhaps not too handy, but better late than never, and let’s at least be fair in our appraisal of the past.

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