You’ve Got to AV a Laugh

Well, laugh or cry, because AV would have made a huge difference to UK politics. Perhaps not immediately, but over the long-term it would have made it possible for a broader political debate, with a larger number of parties.

Today is the first anniversary of the LibCon coalition. Here’s what I wrote precisely one year ago:

“…it seems to me that Clegg is a self-deluding fool. I therefore expect him to go into coalition with Cameron and destroy his party. The pretext will be ‘the national interest’, but the real reason will be the desire for power.

…Clegg’s probably already lost the Lib Dems any chance of AV, let alone PR, for a generation.

Here’s why. Think about it. The Tories have said they will campaign against AV in any referendum they grant the Lib Dems. What incentive will Labour have to support the proposal? None. Sure, they might pay lip-service, since AV was in the Labour manifesto, but, unlike if they were in coalition with the Lib Dems, they will not expend political capital whipping their significant dissenting elements into line. And they’re hardly likely to spend a lot of money on a referendum campaign when they could be saving their pennies for the next election. I simply can’t see the Lib Dems winning a referendum on anything against the Tories, their toadying media supporters AND elements of the Labour party.”

So the outcome of the referendum was totally predictable. I suppose that at least the £200m or whatever it cost provided a small economic stimulus.

I can’t claim to be totally prescient, though. I certainly didn’t expect the mind-blowing incompetence of the Yes campaign.

First, I can still scarcely believe that the Yes campaign failed to get across one simple point. It’s daft to have an electoral system where the outcome depends on whether or not a 3rd or 4th (or other additional) candidate happens to stand.

This is currently the case in every UK constituency. But you don’t have to look back too far for graphic historical examples. Dubya Bush in 2000 benefited from Ralph Nader’s candidature, representing the Green Party, which disproportionately drew votes from, ironically, Al Gore, environmentalist and potential competent President. And maybe the Yes campaign could even have allowed some maverick to point out that divided opposition let the Nazis in.

Second, the timing was absurd. Why the referendum was held so early is a complete mystery to me. The Tories had signalled their opposition and, newly in power for the first time in 13 years, were bound to be speaking with one voice. If time had been allowed for a few Tory splits on the issue to develop (and for Labour to get over the election and be a bit more united) that might have made all the difference. The damage done to the Yes campaign by John Reid wasn’t mirrored on the other side.

Third, the agreement with the Tories should have forced Cameron to declare neutrality. Allowing the office of the Prime Minister to be used could only help the Noes.

Strangely none of these reasons appear in the Guardian Top 10.

But the underlying problem is far more fundamental. There’s no point having a proportional voting system if Parliament doesn’t work in a proportional manner.

Our elections don’t have to be winner takes all. In the long run greater separation of the executive and legislative arms of government is needed, as I also wrote precisely one year ago. This would allow the House of Commons to debate issues without the outcome having been predetermined by the whips, as happened in the dim and distant past.

But Clegg could have made a start. He could have said he’d support Cameron as PM and vote on the merits of bills put before the House. This is pretty much the position he’s now been forced into, but sometimes it’s not about where you are, but how you got there! He could even have relaxed the Lib Dem whip, since, as is now clear, the Lib Dems – having tried to be all things to all men over the years, and respond to local issues around the country – represent a broader spectrum of opinion than either Labour or the Tories.

It is indeed laughable that the Lib Dems thought they could win a referendum on a more proportional voting system at the very same time as they are giving coalition government a bad name. Do they really think the British public is stupid?

Without a broader vision for the evolution of the Westminster political process, we’re not going to see PR in this country for a century, never mind a generation!