Most conversation around Westminster these days involves four almost totemic words: ‘the next general election’. Due to an archaic system that keeps it in the hands of the incumbent prime minister, no one knows exactly when in 2010 the magical event will take place.
In spite of recent rumours about a snap January poll, most observers are still assuming that Gordon Brown will go the full distance. But the impact of speculative uncertainty is a paralysis in ‘politics as usual’.
In the wake of the ongoing (and recently reignited) expenses furore, de-selections of sitting MPs and the probability of a new government, the next parliament will look very different - and significantly younger - than this one. But it is the fate of the main political blocs, not just individuals, which is up for grabs.
The big long-term question is whether the Labour-Tory duopoly, which has dominated the British system in the modern era, could finally be coming to an end. Some old hands think it might be, though the tipping point remains unclear.
Devolution, the SNP-led administration in Scotland, changes in local government demographics and multi-party representation from the UK in the European Parliament have already broadened the system. But that alone is not enough.
Two factors on the horizon could change the scene more decisively. One is a hung parliament. This has come back onto the agenda as a result of an ICM poll which showed David Cameron’s lead in a more slender light than the others, a significant overall closing of what has looked like an unassailable gap between the main parties, the number of undecided voters – and crucially, a sense that while Labour is in disarray, the Conservatives have still not fully ‘clinched the deal’ with the electorate.
The Liberal Democrats, in particular, hope and believe that they could be involved in post-election negotiations in 2010. But former leader Lord Steel said recently that if this was the case it would be better to think about more stable, open coalitions rather than the wobbly ‘pact’ politics of the 1970s, which failed to save Jim Callaghan or prevent the rise of Margaret Thatcher despite a natural centre-left voter majority.
All this remains a distinctly outside possibility, nevertheless. The more intriguing one surrounds emerging signs that Mr Brown may still introduce a piece of legislation within the life of this parliament which requires a public referendum on the introduction of an Alternative Vote electoral system for Westminster after the next government is elected.
If the Tories win, this would have the affect either of tying them to an outcome to which they are strongly opposed, or making them look as though they are denying the people a say and putting self-interest first.
AV is not the voting system preferred by most reformers, who go for the proportional (and more operationally complex) Single Transferable Vote, but it would represent a significant step towards the break-up of the current monopoly.
Whether the PM will finally adopt such a high-risk strategy is still uncertain. He is known for his caution… but he is fast running out of options. So the electoral reform issue may become a political talking point once more over the coming weeks, once the media focus on Copenhagen has receded.
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted slightly from his December 2009 'Westminster Watch' column for Third Way, the magazine of Christian social and cultural comment. www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/
Ekklesia is a supporter of Power 2010, which seeks to involve people at all levels of society in drawing up a programme to change politics, allowing citizens to audit parties and candidates on their commitment to reform in the run up to the next election. www.power2010.org.uk/