England may shoot down Nick Clegg's dream

David Miliband has an excellent chance of becoming the next Labour leader.

He is the bookies' favourite; he is the most experienced of the four candidates; he has the necessary bedside manner to reassure the British electorate; he is obviously clever, but he is also a safe pair of hands.

He offers a relatively sympathetic parallel to the youthful Coalition team of David Cameron and Nick Clegg. The Press has been rather neglectful of his campaign, yet some of his themes reflect real issues in British politics.

Hope: Nick Clegg will be desperate for AV to be brought in - not least because it's what his manifesto promised

Hope: Nick Clegg will be desperate for AV to be brought in - not least because it's what his manifesto promised

Last week Miliband wrote about the English question. It was the loss of English support which defeated Labour in the General Election.

The English are much the largest nation in the United Kingdom, and he wrote that 'almost nine in every ten voters Labour lost between 1997 and 2010 are in England. That's over four million lost English voters and 137 lost English MPs'.

If it could regain England, Labour would have a real chance at the 2015 Election. But it is equally true that the Coalition formed by Cameron and Clegg is an English one, competing with Labour for the English vote. The Coalition has the advantage of being in office.

Miliband's ideas can only become reality if he is elected leader and if Labour wins the next Election. Clegg, in his statement on political and constitutional reform last week, was addressing the Commons as Deputy Prime Minister. One only has to recall the difference between the aura of power of Tony Blair in 1997, and the lack of authority of successive Tory leaders of the Opposition to see how authority has passed from Labour to the Coalition.

Clegg's policy has been agreed by a government in office. He is able to use firm language to make bold claims. 'The Government,' he says, 'have set out an ambitious programme for political renewal, transferring power away from the Executive to empower Parliament, and away from Parliament to empower people.'

Perhaps that will be easier said than done.

MPs are always concerned about holding their own seats, and they want their own party to be in the majority.

Front-runner: David Miliband is the bookie's favourite to become the next Labour leader

Front-runner: David Miliband is the bookie's favourite to become the next Labour leader

They were therefore particularly interested in what Clegg had to say about electoral systems: 'I am also announcing today the details of the Government's proposals to introduce a Bill before the summer to provide a referendum on the Alternative Vote system and for a review of constituency boundaries in order to create fewer and more equally sized constituencies, cutting the cost of politics and reducing the number of MPs from the 650 we have today to a House of 600 MPs.'

In broad terms, these changes will benefit the Liberal Democrats; the acceptance of the Alternative Vote (AV) proposal was indeed their price for entering the Coalition. It would reduce the number of Labour MPs returned by small electorates in city-centre constituencies.

At last May's Election, AV would have elected about 24 more Lib Dem MPs, about 26 fewer Conservatives and a few more Labour MPs.

The big change would be that Clegg's AV plan would give voters' second preferences equal weight with first preferences in helping candidates reach the 50 per cent of votes needed for victory in the new system. That is not a proportional system, and not necessarily fair.

Under such a system, a centre party has an inbuilt advantage; Conservative voters are more likely to give their second preference to the Lib Dems rather than Labour, while Labour voters are more likely to give second preferences to the Lib Dems rather than the Conservatives.

In 1997, Labour and the Lib Dems both benefited from tactical voting. The AV system does people's tactical voting for them, if they choose to cast their second-preference votes.

At the last General Election, the result gave the combined Tories and Lib Dems an overall majority, but left Labour and the Lib Dems with too few seats to form a majority coalition. This might happen again, but the normal outcome would be more likely to favour a Lab-Lib coalition.

Conservatives are quite reasonably concerned that there could be a run of such coalitions. If the AV system had existed at the last General Election, the arithmetic would have been in favour of a Lab-Lib coalition-and we should now probably have a fourth successive Labour administration, perhaps still led by Gordon Brown.

'If Labour is going to gain support outside its metropolitan heartlands and spire to government again, it needs to speak for England.' 

Under the agreement on which the Coalition was formed, the Tories are committed to the referendum, but are free to oppose the AV system. Cameron has said he does oppose AV, but it seems he will not lead the Conservative campaign against it.

There is, however, a considerable chance that a combination of Conservative and Labour voters will reject AV when the referendum happens.

For many Labour voters, recurrent coalitions with the Liberal Democrats are unacceptable because they would make it impossible to have a period of Labour reforms. They want a real Labour Party in power, though that has not actually happened since Clement Attlee ceased to be Prime Minister in 1951.

'If Labour is going to gain support outside its metropolitan heartlands and aspire to government again, it needs to speak for England and identify with its traditions and values,' writes David Miliband.

Yet the threat of a semi-permanent Lab-Lib coalition under AV would really alienate England from Labour; England voted decisively for the Conservatives in May.

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