So I voted no on the AV referendum (for reasons set out here), therefore you’d probably imagine I’m delighted with the result.
Because, let’s be clear, the “No” campaign might have won the vote but they did not win the argument. The case for real and profound change to the British electoral system remains strong and the need for reform remains real.
But the campaign for change was doomed from the start by the party that pressed for this referendum – the party that’s supposed to have electoral reform as one of its fundamental reasons for existing – the Lib Dems.
Nick Clegg lead his party into the last election with a manifesto commitment to deep parliamentary reform and a pledge to introduce a properly proportional system of election. He knew, and their members and supporters knew, that Alternative Vote slapped on top of the existing constituency system in this country was a “miserable little compromise”. They knew that AV would have almost no impact on the outcome of most elections. They knew that AV would do practically nothing to change the relationship between voter and representative. They knew that it didn’t address the issues of corruption that have broken the link of trust between voter and parliament.
They knew all these things.
But, the minute the opportunity for power came his way, Clegg abandoned any principle and settled for a referendum on a compromise system that he didn’t believe in, the public could see right through and that never really stood a chance of winning. I doubt most Tories could believe their luck.
People will whine about the “No” campaign lying or buying their way to victory. It’s nonsense.
Clegg and the Lib Dems made four crucial mistakes:
- They settled for a system no one really believed in. The voters could sense that right from the start. The form of AV on offer was, at best, a minor tweak to a broken system and at worst a form of voting that would have reinforced all that’s bad in our existing politics while offering only minimal benefits. The result was that the “Yes” campaign could only run a profoundly negative campaign (FPTP is crappy) rather than able to make a positive case for change.
- They chose to call the referendum too early – failing to prepare the ground properly – and they tied it to another set of elections, meaning that it inevitably became a referendum on Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems’ role in the coalition (well, now they know exactly what people think).
- They treated the electorate as though they were stupid, making a series of increasingly ridiculous promises about what AV would do. This modest change to the electoral system was going to end MPs having jobs for life. It was going to sort out corruption in Parliament. It was going to make Parliament more proportional. It was going to make it more likely that we’d have power-sharing governments. The public saw straight through all this guff.
- They were completely outmanoeuvred by the Conservatives so that, while Clegg was effectively removed from the campaign by his desire to appear loyal, Cameron said whatever he liked and used proxies to hammer the campaign. The Lib Dems were reduced to Huhne’s accurate, well-meant, but hopelessly unattractive whining about how badly they were being treated.
And the result of all this?
The Lib Dems have sold the pass on electoral reform and got nothing as compensation.
They have (and this is becoming a theme of Clegg’s time in government) again betrayed the progressive cause through a mixture of stupidity and arrogance. The terrible drubbing that the “Yes” campaign has taken has effectively removed the prospect of a debate on genuine electoral reform for a decade (more?) and other aspects of parliamentary reform (like a proper, elected, second chamber) are going to be easy for conservatives of all stripes to dismiss. You can hear them all over the airwaves today and the refrain will be repeated for years to come: “The people have spoken.”
This is, of course, nonsense.
The people have rejected AV, because they saw it for what it was. But the people of Scotland and Wales are not scared of electoral reform. They’ve just used complex systems of proportional representation to select their governments in very nuanced and smart way. English people aren’t against reforms that make their political system better – they’d love a real chance to make their representatives more like them, to make them listen more, to stamp out corruption.
The people aren’t stupid. They haven’t voted for the status quo today, they’ve voted against a grubby compromise.
They could see that AV addressed none of the things they really cared about.
They could see that AV was the wrong system shoved at them for the wrong reasons.
They recognised a half-baked, backroom compromise that no one wanted and they rejected it.
So, no, as someone who wants real political reform, I’m not happy that 70% of the British public voted the same way as me. As someone who supports proportional representation, I’m not happy that this referendum has killed the chances of change for the foreseeable future.
But I’m not surprised.
And as a final note: What now for the Lib Dems?
Personally, and it’s not that I care much except for the fact that their collapse makes it harder of Labour to beat the Tories in the South of England, I can’t help asking: What’s the point of the Lib Dems now?
Suppose, in the aftermath of the next election, we end up with another hung parliament (I hope not, I want a Labour majority, but suppose…) and the Lib Dems are sitting down to negotiate a coalition. What do they want? Electoral reform can’t happen. They’ve tied their wagon to the Tories plans for the destruction of the welfare state, the health service and the core of the post-WW2 British political settlement. They’ve gone back to their free-market routes and given up on Keynesianism. They’ve lost any serious credentials as a party of the environment.
Who are they? What would they do? Why would anyone vote for them?
The case for electoral reform took a beating today, that’s true. But the Liberal Democrats lost far more. It seems to me, they’ve lost their reason to exist.
I’m not shedding any tears about that.