AV: A referendum on the Liberal Democrats

AV: A referendum on the Liberal Democrats

In many ways, the campaign for and against the Alternative Vote in the build-up to the May referendum has been a study in how not to do political education.

It has been a race to the bottom, a slanging match, with the actual subject under discussion still unclear and with a public uninterested, uniformed or both in a poll which may fundamentally change the way politics is done in this country. Despite the attempt by both campaigns to appear bipartisan, it is also a poll where one party above all others has much to gain, and conversely, a huge amount to lose. The referendum is pregnant with implications for the coalition government as a whole – whatever the outcome – but for the Liberal Democrats, it is not going too far to state that the 5th May is a make-or-break moment in the history of the party.

The Liberal Democrats made many sacrifices in the coalition agreement; their pledge to vote against rises in tuition fees, their posterboard opposition to VAT rises, and perhaps most significantly, their identity as an independent political force. Critically, the coalition agreement – for all the damage it has done to the Liberal Democrats, perceived and actual – did enshrine a number of key aspects of Liberal Democrat policy, and not least amongst these was the sacred cow of electoral reform.

Electoral reform animates Liberal Democrats in the same way the prospect of tax cuts animates grassroots Conservatives. The party, which for many years was effectively a pressure group in the cause of electoral reform, even has its own internal pressure groups (such as DAGGER, the Democratic Action Group for Gaining Electoral Reform) to ensure the leadership is ‘kept honest’ on the issue. And why not? The Lib Dems have self-interested reasons in caring about electoral reform, of course. Under the current system, First Past the Post, their share of the seats never equates to their share of the vote nationally, which is always disproportionately larger. In the pre-Lib Dem days of the 1983 General Election, the SDP-Liberal alliance polled over 25% of the vote, just over two per cent behind Labour. Yet Labour won nearly 200 more seats. That kind of treatment, mirrored to a lesser extent at every election since, sticks in the craw.

This is why there is such a cross-fertilisation between the Liberal Democrats and the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign, which launched at a community centre in Lambeth on April 2nd. Current politicians were banned, but a large number of current and former Lib Dem staffers (myself included) were scattered around the audience, not to mention the presence of the former Lib Dem MP for Oxford West, Evan Harris. Believing in the merits of something per se, and standing to reap a benefit from it personally, are not incompatible things, as any Tory who’s ever championed tax cuts will tell you. The Lib Dems have felt the injustice of First Past the Post personally – but that has only made their commitment to the cause of ‘fair votes’ still more sincere. And that’s why AV, for all the cross-fertilisation, is causing them more than a little trouble.

‘Fair votes’ have, almost imperceptibly, become ‘fairer votes’. The rhetorical shift is significant. AV and proportional representation are markedly different beasts, designed to solve different problems. Whereas the Lib Dems have traditionally enshrined PR as the be-all and end-all, ensuring as it does that every vote counts and is thus ‘fair’, AV only addresses this indirectly. It isn’t proportional – rather (as any A-level politics student will tell you) it is majoritarian – aiming to ensure that each individual MP has a majority of support within their constituency. Nick Clegg’s famous quote that Alternative Vote was a ‘miserable little compromise’ has come back to haunt him recently; Clegg (2011 edition) now claiming that the referendum offers ‘a once in a generation’ opportunity to ‘change politics’. The attraction of AV for Liberal Democrats lies in the fact that it was all they could get, and that – in essence – it should serve their electoral purposes.

Few Lib Dems, or for that matter, few of those gathered in the Coin Community Centre on 2nd April, would pick AV as their preferred system of choice. In 1998, the Jenkins Commission, appointed by Tony Blair under the chairmanship of Liberal Democrat peer Roy Jenkins, recommended a hybrid system called AV+ which would have AV for constituencies and a ‘top-up’ system of PR list elections. Some would prefer this, as Clegg did in his negotiations with the Labour Party in May last year. Others would prefer the Additional Member System, or AMS – already in use in Scotland, Wales and the Greater London Assembly, which synthesises FPTP with top-up members elected under List. And finally there are those who would hold out for ‘pure’ PR, either in the form of the Single Transferable Vote (as used in the Northern Ireland Assembly) or List (as used for elections to the European Parliament).

Each has their strengths and weaknesses. The hybrid and proportional systems can claim at least elements of proportionality – a test AV fails to meet. All are more likely to produce coalition or minority governments than FPTP, standfast the events of May 2010. Yet proportional systems possess a single strength majoritarian ones lack – you get what you vote for, which – for the Lib Dems – was supposed to be the point all along.

The attributes of AV are more complex, nuanced and thus difficult to sell. It’s single biggest strength – that it provides over 50% support to the representative, thereby ensuring legitimacy and accountability, is a dubious claim. The fact that second and lower preference votes may be necessary to ensure the 50% threshold is met hardly provides a ringing endorsement, or perhaps even no endorsement at all; in the worst-case scenario, a successful candidate may simply be least despised amongst a hated bunch. The fact that a candidate will have to appeal beyond their core vote in what would now be classed as ‘safe seats’ is superficially appealing, but the fear of still-more centrism comes with it.

Unsurprisingly, the campaign has thus fractured into a ‘lesser of two evils’ contest, with Yes to Fairer Votes hammering the weaknesses of FPTP and No2AV going after the ills – real and imagined – of the would-be replacement. Some of the jibes – particularly from the No campaign – have been little short of staggering. The emotive posters about either/or choices between maternity units and electoral reform were tasteless and ill-advised at best; the timing was also suspect, given that kind of negative campaigning is probably most useful when the audience has the least time to deconstruct the emotional impact – that is to say immediately before the poll. The debate about whether extremists such as the BNP would benefit has been hugely misleading; given that AV requires a 50% threshold for election, it would effectively doom their electoral prospects. They know that, which is why they are campaigning against the change. But all the negativity has sucked oxygen out of the contest. It’s been far from impressive, and it’s a debate which has singularly failed to capture the public’s imagination.

And in a sense, ‘twas ever thus. The failure of electoral reform to excite public interest stands as a curious metaphor for the Liberal Democrats own political plight, with the famous exception of Cleggmania (an outburst of public approval which actually cost them six seats net). Electoral reform is political geekery, and the Liberal Democrats are a party of political geeks. Their issues, as a journalist put it to me recently, aren’t rooted in the everyday British experience. Labour built itself as a movement on the intrinsic, everyday conflict between management and labour; it then spent every decade since the 1940s trying to square that electoral circle. The Conservatives have a long history – dating back to the urban Toryism of the later nineteenth century – in putting themselves forward as the defender of ‘traditional values’, taxing law-abiding citizens less and punishing criminals more. These are all issues people can identify with, however much the two main parties have, periodically, shifted to capture essential political ground.

The Lib Dems are, and have always been, more nebulous. If you believe in their issues, as I do, it can be infuriating that subjects such as civil liberties do not engage the public interest. But the reason is simple; restrictions on protests within a mile of Parliament Square or detaining terror suspects without trial simply don’t register for the majority of the British population. Nor does electoral reform. Given that the sum total of most people’s involvement in British politics is as ‘spectators’, who simply turn up to vote every five years, engaging them in a substantive discussion of a complex (and ultimately technical) subject such as electoral reform is going to be an uphill struggle at best.

Electoral reform never features highly in issues of concern to voters when they are polled in election cycles. As with civil liberties, there is a degree of incomprehension about this on the part of Liberal Democrats at times. Why don’t they get it? But this lack of comprehension says less about the British public and more about a party that increasingly since it has gained power has turned in on itself, becoming a navel-gazing entity divorced from the everyday concerns of the public as a whole. There has been the evolution of a martyrdom complex, most evident in Nick Clegg’s recent interview with Jemima Khan, where the Liberal Democrats cast themselves as misunderstood heroes, taking the difficult decisions necessary to keep the country afloat against invective from all sides.

The irony is that this increasing self-obsession may damage their most prized issue irrevocably. Few serious commentators believe the argument that a taste of reform with AV would mean a desire amongst the British public for ‘stronger stuff’ in the future. This is, as Clegg himself noted, the critical moment in itself – irrespective of AV’s strengths and weaknesses. Yet Clegg is forced to the sidelines by the personal drag factor he brings to any issue, much to the dismay of his own membership. The Lib Dems are unable to punch their full weight at this most critical of moments. Charles Kennedy – as the Lib Dem people still like – has campaigned manfully for the Yes lobby and brought much-needed positive publicity to the campaign, but on its own this is not enough.

The decision on changing our electoral system should have been the subject of a serious, reasoned debate. That clearly hasn’t happened. The Liberal Democrats - for whom so much depends on the outcome of the referendum, both now and in the future – are trapped in a web of their own lack of popularity and their lack of real conviction in supporting a system they have never really believed in. The British public, not surprisingly, remain unmoved.

The event in Coin Street on the 2nd April highlighted the contradictions at the heart of the Yes campaign. As FPTP was savaged as the guarantor of safe seats and thus political corruption, it was clear to see what the Yes campaign was against. It was more difficult to see what they were for. The same can be now be said of the Liberal Democrats, who having abandoned issue after issue, and having compromised on this one – find themselves in extremely difficult political terrain.

Whatever the outcome on May 5th, it is clear that the British public have been ill-served (‘politician-free zones’ or not) by a partisan debate about an issue which really was too important to be left to the politicians.


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