“I pondered all these things,” wrote William Morris in A Dream of John Ball, “and how men in fight and lose the battle and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat. And when it comes, turns out not to be what they meant and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”
Morris was right, and he seems to have hit on a profound truth about politics. Change is deeply paradoxical, and – although the grammar of progress eludes most politicians – we achieve what we achieve sideways, like crabs.
When we win we are also at the moment of disappointment; when we lose then paradoxically things happen as a result. It’s confusing, but that is how it works.
This is one of those paradoxical moments, because we are about to see the Conservatives support electoral reform in the Commons, if not outright PR. The political shift is not yet complete, and it certainly won’t be embraced by all 306, but it has begun.
A quick race through political history shows that this isn’t actually very unusual. It was Conservatives who extended the franchise in 1867, who reformed factories and extended free education. It was the Tories who made Ireland independent.
Not because they really had much taste for it, but because of something else. When Conservatives realise that radical reform is inevitable, then – in the end – they prefer to do it themselves.
In the case of PR, the alternative is that Labour will do it, when they next claw their way to power. Then we risk Labour-style PR, with list systems that leave the party machines in control.
It is the historic destiny of the Conservative Party to introduce PR a different way, setting Britain on the path towards proportional representation in a way that retains that link between MPs and their constituencies. The debate is about Alternative Vote now, but that is now so far from the Irish system of single transferable vote – giving the maximum amount of choice to the voters, and keeping van all-important constituency link.
That will mean bigger, multi-member constituencies. But then, that is what Britain used to have. It is a potential Conservative compromise.
What we are all learning this month is that strong, decisive and effective government isn’t quite what Conservatives thought it was. In the end, giving absolute power to a minority isn’t either stable or decisive.
When we face the kind of problems that now face Britain – loss of confidence in the markets, the urgent need to cut the deficit – then minority power doesn’t work. It isn’t stable and it can’t unite the nation. The only thing that will work, and give stability, is government that is backed by a majority. That applies now, but it will apply in the future too.
History suggests that this is the moment when enough Conservatives realise that, and grasp the opportunity to give power back to the voters. In the heat of the moment, they agreed to back AV, but the logic suggests that many of them will go further.
Watch this space. They will wriggle, but in the end they will back PR.