Cameron and Clegg promised a referendum on an electoral system neither actually likes. Such a vote is bound to strain their unionby Anne McElvoy / June 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Prospect is the type of place where youthful indiscretions are looked on kindly. Here’s one of mine. Twenty-five years ago, I was in favour of the alternative vote (AV). Together with Mark Field, now Conservative MP for the cities of London and Westminster, I wrote a piece for Cherwell, the Oxford University newspaper, suggesting that the system should be used for our student union elections. The idea was also supported by a new member of the student union council, one David Miliband, and the later Liberal Democrat MP for Truro, Matthew Taylor. But the meeting called to debate the proposal was inquorate. “The idea of voting reform fails to inspire much interest,” noted Taylor, a masterpiece of understatement.
These days I feel that the indifferent youth of Oxford 1985 were right and I was wrong. AV isn’t worth having. Alas, in their hasty pre-nup, David Cameron and Nick Clegg lumbered us all with it, the only new voting system on offer in a promised referendum. If you want electoral reform, the late Roy Jenkins came up with the best off-the-peg manual, after Tony Blair (in a brief fit of enthusiasm) asked him to conduct a review—and Jenkins opted for “AV plus.” Its main drawback is that it is elaborate to explain—but many other electoral arrangements fail that test.
AV was a late-flowering interest of Gordon Brown’s, and a typically cynical one calculated to buy a few extra reformist votes. Electoral reform is the dog that has not, so far, barked in Labour’s leadership battle. It isn’t clear that Brown’s successor should stick with AV, which would have gained Labour around four seats this time. A new leader could wreak pleasurable havoc by putting AV plus, or even full PR, on the table—and watching how many Lib Dems come running, a tantalising olive branch to restore a Lib-Lab friendship if (or rather when) the Cleggeron crush fades.
The stunning thing about the mooted referendum is that neither of the leaders proposing AV remotely wants it. The Lib Dems know it is not the real-deal PR they have long hankered for, while the Conservative party is still in shock. The right believes Cameron has made a grave error in agreeing to a referendum, while many of the PM’s closest backers have doubts too. I gather my old partner in crime Mark Field has shaken off his radical student instincts and would now…