There have been many fascinating and startling moments over the last forty-eight hours, and none more so than the insight we've had into the mindset of that well-known electoral system dogmatist, Tom Harris. Essentially he's been in complete denial of reality, telling anyone who will listen that Gordon Brown's offer to the Liberal Democrats of a referendum on electoral reform is merely a restatement of the manifesto commitment - ie. the referendum would be on AV, rather than a proportional system. If the Liberal Democrats are prepared to settle for that, Harris goes on, then fair enough, a coalition can go ahead - but he doesn't think it's likely they will. Now, even the dogs on the street know that Brown is fully prepared to put PR on the ballot paper if it will entice the Liberal Democrats into a coalition, but in Harris' mind this apparently can't possibly be the case because it is somehow 'against the rules' for the PM to 'go beyond the manifesto'. Oh-kaaay. These will be the rules that prevented Labour's manifesto being breached by the introduction of top-up fees, and by the raising of the top rate of income tax to 50p, will it? More to the point, what about Scottish Labour conceding PR for local government as the price for a coalition deal with the Lib Dems in 2003?
What's extraordinary about this is that it leaves little room for doubt that this Labour MP is positively willing the Conservative party to assume office, if that's what it takes to avoid a referendum on PR. The prospect of the demise of his beloved system under which the two largest parties tacitly conspire to take turns at elective dictatorship is clearly far more of a cause for panic than the very imminent prospect of a Tory government. I've observed before that Harris is ideologically a Tory in many ways, but I didn't realise that he would literally prefer a Tory government to a Labour-led government implementing a progressive programme.
Sadly, it's unlikely to get this far, but it's fascinating to consider what on earth Harris would do if a Lib/Lab coalition was formed, and a parliamentary vote on a PR referendum came up that was essentially a vote of confidence in the government. Would he really walk through the lobbies with the Tories to enable them to take office? I'm beginning to think he just might. And remember - the focus for his boneheaded intransigence is not PR itself, but merely a referendum on PR, which would afford him every opportunity to argue for the preservation of his favoured system, if he really thinks the case is so strong. And, not only that, it's a referendum that would actually be conducted under first-past-the-post!