Friday, July 09, 2010

AV Club

For all the dire predictions being made about the referendum being the straw that will break the coalition, I don't believe that it will. While I'm sure that the passage of legislation will be a little fraught by backbench Tories and the Labour party hurling well-aimed spanners, I doubt that any really terminal wrecking amendments will be forthcoming.

So, come May next year, I'm sure we'll be trooping into polling stations to let about 25% of the electorate decide the future democratic path of this country. While I'm generally an adherent of the principle that decisions are taken by those who turn up, I can't help but be attracted to the Tory backbench idea of requiring 40% support from the electorate as a whole.

However, I'm concerned about conflating local elections and national electoral process. Essentially, I suspect that this is a shrewd political move by the Liberal Democrats to take advantage of local election turnout to try to push this through and also to use it as a lever to protect their vote share, which is likely to be under massive pressure as the cuts agenda starts to bite in a very visible way. After all, electoral reform has been a totemic policy for the party since the foundation of the SDP and there is no other issue so guaranteed to persuade wavering lefty Liberal Democrats to come out and vote one more time.

Will it pass? I'm not sure that it will inspire enougj passion amongst the electorate. It must be remembered that AV isn't proportional representation and essentially ensures that a winning candidate can rely on over 50% of the electorate to lend them some element of support. Such a subtle process change excites few people outside the community of political geekdom.

Clegg is also in the peculiar position of now having to propose and marshal support for a policy he has slammed in the past. Some are talking of it as baby steps towards full proportional representation, but I doubt that. If the measure falls at the referendum, then reform is probably off the agenda for a generation - the Tories have no stomach for it and will lead the charge even against AV, although Cameron is expected to take a backseat to avoid apparent dissent amongst the Cabinet. Even if it does pass, I suspect that this will also put further reform into the middle distance, as there is unlikely to be a huge groundswell of support, thus allowing the Tories to justify kicking it into the long grass for the foreseeable future.

Clegg has trumpeted this as evidence of the power of the Liberal Democrats within the coalition, but this victory could, as I have outlined, prove to be a Pyhrric one for large-scale reform, if it allows the Tories to shelve any further changes on the grounds of lack of support. Win or lose, it also marks the high water mark of Liberal Democrat achievement and the question will then be asked as to where the coalition goes from there. I doubt that it will be a break point, as I'm increasingly of the view that the Liberal Democrats will be in this until the next election. Whether that election will be in 2015 or a snap election following the Olympics and Jubilee is a different matter.

Just as the drive to reform the electoral process is driven by the unsubtle political agenda of obtaining an advantage for the Liberal Democrats at least as much as it is about an altruistic approach to electoral justice, so the other parties also have their own agendas. Neither Labour nor the Tories particularly want to face the prospect of an eternal coalition dependent upon the variable political direction of a third party. Modelling preference votes is massively difficult and will lead to more tactical voting. In Birmingham, for example, we have seen Conservative and Liberal Democrats allying in an informal non-aggression electoral pact, where they essentially do not campaign against each other in order to maximise the anti-Labour vote. Before the Tories get over-excited about this as a good thing, remember that voters can be fickle, no matter how on-message that nice Mr Clegg is at the moment. An informal alliance against an unpopular Tory government is just as credible.

Still, you have to wonder if this is just a distraction to keep the Lib Dems from thinking about the destruction that they are aiding and abetting as part of the demolition coalition. You hope that when Liberal Democrat minister Michael Moore looks at his performance on Question Time last night, he thinks that the audience abuse and jeers are worth it to get to AV.

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