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 rather keep first-past-the-post. Recently, I sat next to a figure who was key to Cameron’s rise. He was serene about the failure to beat Labour outright, give or take a few millimetres of ground teeth. He could live with Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems—in their place. In vain did I try to spur the old fighter into a bad word about life on Planet Cleggeron. “There’s just one thing I don’t understand,” he finally ventured, “Why on earth David offered a referendum.”
Perhaps Cameron is confident that his superiority in numbers at Westminster and an unconvinced right-of-centre press will help keep the status quo. Still, it is a risk. My mole inside the Lib-Con talks says that this was the closest the two parties got to a deal-breaker. “Nick needed electoral reform to sell it. Cameron wouldn’t give him PR: so they went for something neither likes.” Cameron must campaign against AV—his party will bear nothing less and he’s an FPTP kind of guy. Clegg has to convince his side that AV is the best way to kick-start changes towards full proportionality—though it would have gained him only 22 more seats this time round. Not exactly a whirlwind at Westminster.
Are Conservatives right to resist? Not according to an intriguing piece on ConservativeHome by a former aide to Australian prime minister John Howard, who thinks that the terror among Tories is ill-placed. Conservatives down under have done well under AV, although it is less certain whether this scenario works in a three-party system, rather than the Oz duopoly. Most Conservatives will still consider the risk too great to take.
Already, the issue is being treated as the unloved child of the Nick ’n’ Dave liaison, to be postponed as long as possible. Here lurks strife. The Lib Dem grassroots have so far been stunned into submission. Their leader avers that Tory-led cuts, implemented by that nice Danny Alexander (pending the resurrection of David Laws) are not like the Thatcher years. Communities and employees affected will see things differently, and among the first victims will be Lib Dem councillors.
The party may thus feel it should cash in any chips it can on even modest electoral reform as soon as possible, to have at least one concrete achievement to show for bedding down with Dave and co. Simon Hughes, the new deputy leader, is now touting his message of a party “clear and distinct” from the Tories. How soon, I wonder, before this turbulent priest presses his leader for a binding referendum date? That would put Clegg and Cameron on the spot, without there being anyone to blame for it but themselves.