Saturday, February 19, 2011

Labour has future of electoral system in its hands

When Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg took the historic gamble of joining the Tory-led coalition government last May, he created for himself an excruciating political conundrum.

By forcing the Conservatives to grant a referendum on reforming the voting system, Mr Clegg opened up the tantalising prospect of turning the Lib Dems from a party of permanent opposition to one of moreorless permanent power.

Yet at the same time, by aligning himself with what was bound to be an unpopular administration, Mr Clegg simultaneously ran the risk of seeing the prize of electoral reform swept away on a tide of anti-government protest votes.

The fact that he then went on to make himself the most hated man in Britain in some quarters by breaking a 'solemn promise' on university tuition fees only served to underline the point.

For make no mistake, Mr Clegg is set to become the central figure in the May referendum that was finally given the go-ahead this week following a last-minute game of parliamentary ping-pong between the Lords and Commons.

At the moment, the 'no' campaign is not talking about him, trying instead to make the argument against the proposed new Alternative Vote system on the grounds of cost and complexity.

But don't be fooled – these are just the opening skirmishes, and before too long, this is going to get personal.

'Don't give Nick Clegg a permanent seat at the Cabinet table' is quite simply the no camp's most potent message in this campaign, and it's one we will be hearing a lot more of in the run up to the 5 May vote.

Perhaps understandably, Mr Clegg has so far been nowhere to be seen in the 'yes' campaign, even going so far as to tell Radio Four's Today programme yesterday that the referendum was "nothing to do with" him.

Instead, in the week that The King's Speech swept the board at the Baftas, the pro-reform camp wheeled out the film's much-decorated stars Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter to voice their support.

While Ms Bonham Carter, as the great grand-daughter of the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, does at least have some family political tradition to maintain here, one could be forgiven for asking 'who cares?'

But that is not the point. The point is that here are two high-profile personalities supporting electoral reform whose names are not Nick Clegg.

On the Labour side, several prominent ex-ministers have already got involved on the 'no' side, including John Prescott, whose track record in referendum campaigns should probably make opponents of electoral reform somewhat wary.

But what should Labour supporters of AV like party leader Ed Miliband do – stay out of it and let the luvvies do the talking, or seek to provide a measure of leadership themselves?

In a sense, it's a win-win situation for Mr Miliband. If the referendum results in a 'yes' vote, the evidence of recent elections suggests it will benefit his party.

But if the country votes 'no', the coalition will be destabilised, perhaps even to the extent that an early general election could result.

The attitude of the Labour leadership will ultimately be crucial, in that it will almost certainly be Labour voters who decide the outcome of this.

Conservative supporters will by and large vote to keep first past the post, as David Cameron urged yesterday. The Lib Dems will vote en masse for change.

The great temptation will be for Labour supporters to vote tribally against AV in order to give the Coalition a bloody nose, but given a strong enough lead from Mr Miliband, my hunch is that most of them will back the change.

That is, of course, assuming they can overcome their dislike of Nick Clegg.

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G Eagle Esq said...

Mmm .. err .. ex Africa, semper aliquid novi

I flatter mysen that I agree with Monsieur Paul on so many things

.... apart perhaps on whether Mrs Blair should be constrained to become a Peeress

BUT surely Labour supporters should vote against the ghastly AV

Perhaps it would prevent the Tories from ever getting a Commons majority

... However, we would NEVER again have the delights of a Labour Government == AV would lead to perpetual Coalitions, where no-one would ever get the Government they wanted

Stephen Rouse said...

I disagree with Mr Eagle on most things, but it's always good to hear from him - you do get a better class of Tory on this site.
However, he needs to answer this. We've had Labour Governments containing Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn, and Tory governments containing Jim Prior and Keith Joseph. What were these, if not de facto coalitions?

Anonymous said...

With the dreadful events unfolding in Libya,we now need a full public enquiry into the last government's oil deals in exchange for the release of a mass murderer.