The AV Referendum – What does Clegg really want?

In May 2011 there will be a referendum in Britain to answer the question; should the electoral system be reformed from First Past the Post (FPTP) to Alternative Vote (AV), this being the price the Conservatives paid to bring the Lib-Dems into government with them as a coalition. The Lib-Dems want a proportional electoral system rather than a variation of the plurality method currently employed, so they aren’t exactly delighted with the choice on offer, but are at least willing to campaign for a change in order to break the stasis of electoral subjugation that they believe FPTP imposes. However, Lib-Dem members and activists are ideologically a lot further left than Clegg’s merry band of orange-book reformers, and are unhappy be seen as ‘collaborators’ even if it brings power, so there is suggestion that a failure to win the AV plebiscite could result in rebellion or even split the party, and in doing so dissolve the coalition before its time. This eventuality is unlikely, the Lib-Dem’s are after all in the process of convincing the electorate that they are a serious party of government, the problem with AV however is that no-one really wants it, but perhaps that is the point…..

Is the referendum merely a vehicle to enable proportional reform that his party can win?

The idea that reform of the Commons might transform into reform of the Lords is not new, but this blog wonders whether Clegg ever had any expectation of winning a referendum on change to AV, or whether the un-minuted elements of the coalition agreement specifically decreed an unpopular referendum in order that the Conservative back-bench not bring down the coalition in rebellion, on the proviso that the rejection be swiftly followed by proposals for a proportionally elected Lords.

The British people have on the whole been quite content with the adversarial politics of a plurality system and there is a popular enthusiasm for kicking-the-rascals-out, so while a vocal portion of the electorate dislikes the current set-up most notably including the smaller and/or more europhile parties, it is far from clear that there is a majority in favour of change. The ugly mess of the ongoing Australian election is hardly likely to increase enthusiasm for consensual coalition politics and electoral systems that promote it. The limit of the electorates marginal interest in voting reform is recognition that PR might be an interesting way of doing things, but this isn’t it.

To illustrate this in a very unscientific manner is the table below showing the electorates of the major political parties with a rough estimate of the percentage of each parties vote that might favour a change to AV. Of the 28.5 million voters at the last election the breakdown suggests 13 million in favour and 15.5 million against:

This blogger fully respects the lack of sophistication employed in the creation of the table, and the lack of statistical data to back it up, but still considers it a probable outcome given the following: The Conservative party will actively campaign for a no vote with 10.7 million broadly sympathetic voters behind them. Labour will half-heartedly campaign either way depending on which direction the electoral advantage lies, but have no particular enthusiasm for AV or electoral reform, and nor too does its 8.6 million voters. The Lib-Dems will strongly campaign in favour of a yes vote, but their 6.8 million voters don’t particularly want AV, and the Lib-Dem activists are divided between the view that a “yes” vote would provide a platform for further change or that it would lock them into a disadvantaging system for another generation. Of the rest, the pro BNP/SNP/Green vote is largely balanced by an anti UKIP vote, who while a small party are largely consisted of reactionary and disillusioned Tories.

While a lot can change in politics over the course of a year, and while the electorate can be extremely whimsical to fads resulting in stampedes away from the expected trend, this blog holds the view that the 1.5 million projected loss for the “yes” vote is very probable.

So why would Clegg expend so much political capital in demanding an electoral system that neither his party nor the wider electorate is enthusiastic about?

That it was necessary to get the Lib-Dem parliamentary party to accept the coalition is certain, but perhaps it is because he knows the Conservatives will need the coalition to last for its full term, and he has extracted a promise for an immediate proposal of Lords reform in the days following the “no” result.

This would explain the smoke-screen of the date chosen for the referendum, the same day as the local elections in Wales and Scotland; people who are notionally more familiar and at ease with electoral ‘innovation’ and people who will be more likely to vote by dint of the local elections happening on the same day. This clever ‘concession’ extracted by Clegg is possibly nothing more than a sop to his party to convince them that he is serious about the AV, when in fact this is a referendum not an election so the tight balance of opposing local forces is irrelevant, it merely comes down to individual votes and Wales and Scotland between them account for less than 15% of the total population. If 15% of the population are 15% more likely to vote, who are 15% more enthusiastic about AV than the national average, will it really make much of a difference to the overall result? Malcontent Tories will moan and threaten amendments to change the date, but this does nothing but lend Clegg political cover regarding the sincerity of his commitment to the referendum.

So, come May 6th, Clegg stands at the head of a disillusioned parliamentary party, fractious and rebellious, and perceived as a failure by the wider electorate for his aborted attempt at electoral reform, what is a deputy Prime Minister to do?

Promise them something better than a broken plurality system which wasn’t really wanted; “The electorate have spoken, and we respect their decision, but for too long has this country put off genuine reform of the Lords, so today we announce a parliamentary bill that will give Britain a new Upper House elected via proportional representation, and thus introduce a fairer system of governance to this countries democratic tradition!” This could be further enhanced by introducing reforms that aim to ameliorate the percieved deficits of FPTP such as safe seats, perhaps even by Carswell/Hannan approved mechanisms such as open-recall ballots. Is this why we have heard so little to date on the other facets of electoral reform?

Would the Tories mind?

No, why would they, the Lords has been a broken institution since Labour’s botched attempt at reform, and they will be quite content to maintain plurality politics where they believe it truly belongs; in the Commons, where the constituency link matters, where decisive political mandates are most beneficial, and where success and failure are ‘justly’ rewarded. There is also sound reason to support a proportional Lords, because if you are going to elect the Lords in exactly the same manner as the Commons why bother with a bi-caramel system of Parliament at all? There is no constituency link that requires preserving, and no need to create a legislature with a decisive majority, there is in short no downside.  Most importantly for the Tories; it will allow Clegg to dispense the success and hope necessary to keep his party in the coalition as Cameron needs at least four years in government to be sure of entering a general election with an economy and society that has past the worst of the global recession.

Cameron needs to be able to dispense success and hope too, so giving the Lib-Dem’s the kudos for reforming the Lords would be a small price to pay to keep both his party and that of the Lib-Dem’s bound tightly into the coalition.

How might we confirm the truth of the matter? This blog would suggest the proposal of a Lords reform bill within a fortnight of a “no” vote, and Cameron’s support for it backed by the party whip.

Update – 11.09.10 – It would appear that Clegg is lining up his ducks on reform of the Lords as per this statement; “in the New Year we will produce draft legislation to complete the modernization of the House of Lords” How soon will that draft legislation appear after the new year, before or after the referendum?

One response to “The AV Referendum – What does Clegg really want?

  1. Pingback: AV In Flames – A vanity project that will taste of ashes. « Jedibeeftrix's Blog

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