The suggestion by Andrew Grice in the Independent this morning that David Cameron might be planning to assist the Lib-Dems over electoral reform — just as he did in the Oldham East & Saddleworth by-election — changes the whole nature of the AV referendum debate. Many of those Labour MPs who have backed AV see it as an easy, costless and pretty empty gesture which can be spun as evidence that Labour is modern and its commitment to democracy paramount. They over-estimate the benefits, and overlook the massive risk of long-term Tory-led coalition. They don’t see it as real electoral reform; they don’t notice that it could actually severely undermine real democracy.
The Tories have embarked, in their first year of government, on a rolling-back of the state that easily surpasses what Thatcher managed in her whole period of office. They are undermining, in particular, the fabric of the NHS in a way in which Thatcher never dared. They have cover for this from Orange-book Liberals with whom they are ideologically at one. Cameron and Clegg may each have the irritation of constant criticism from their respective rebels but it will be ever thus. The point is that Coalition enables them not only to survive but to dominate their parties, strengthened by the dependence on continued coalition of the many MPs whose majorities would be threatened if it falls apart. AV would provide an easy route to an informal alliance which could survive election after election.
As Andrew Grice writes:
There are growing fears among Tory backbenchers that some Cameron allies would be privately relaxed about a Yes vote in the referendum, since it would give Mr Clegg a big prize and almost certainly ensure that the Coalition lasted until the next election in 2015. In contrast, a No vote could provoke demands from some Liberal Democrat activists for the party to pull out of the Coalition.
Tory traditionalists also fear a switch to AV would increase the chances of a permanent alliance between the two Coalition parties, as favoured by some Tory modernisers. Under this system, people mark the candidates in order of preference – the last-placed person drops out and second preferences are redistributed until one candidate secures more than 50 per cent of the votes.
Traditionalists believe the introduction of AV would lead to an informal anti-Labour pact, under which Mr Cameron encouraged Tory supporters to make the Liberal Democrats their second choice, with Mr Clegg urging his party’s backers to put the Tories in second place.”
If that happens, the electoral arithmetic changes drastically from most projections to date. Electoral Calculus, for example, bases projections on YouGov poll evidence on second preferences prior to the general election. Since that point, many of those whose second preference was Labour have switched their first preference from the Lib Dems anyway, and many now form part of Labour’s current poll lead — this YouGov poll showed that last year’s Lib Dem voters split 42% Labour, 30% Lib Dem, 17% Tory!
The Sunday Times YouGov poll last weekend show that Lib Dem voters now think Cameron is performing well by 3 to 1, only slightly more than the Tories who think Clegg is doing well. As to how whether the Coalition is working well, the Tories think so by nine to one, compared with three to one for the Lib Dems.
On this basis, any kind of informal pact at the next election would create a solid anti-Labour alliance. Some Lib Dems may not like it but their moist rebellious MPs will also know that it will be the best way of saving their seats. Labour voters are more hostile to them than ever, and are more likely to give their second preferences to nationalists, the Greens or other minor parties. It may split the Lib Dems in the long-run but they’ve been down that road more than once before.
Labour MPs should beware. Now is not the time for token gestures! Real electoral reform, proportional representation, would be very different and encourage a real multi-party democracy (though the Lib Dems would be the greatest beneficiary). AV could just create a two-choice system, with Labour the certain loser.