Progressive majority may still find its voice, says Andrew Grice

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The Independent Online

On the eve of the referendum on the electoral system, Ed Miliband said supporting the alternative vote (AV) would give expression to the "anti-Conservative, progressive majority" in Britain. On the face of it, he could not have been more wrong.

A mere 10 counting areas out of 440 in the UK voted in favour of AV – the London boroughs of Islington, Camden, Haringey, Hackney, Lambeth and Southwark; Oxford; Cambridge; Edinburgh Central; and Glasgow Kelvin. The Conservatives are gloating: the much-vaunted progressive majority turned out to be a tiny progressive minority.

Yet the Tory celebrations might be a little premature. Many Labour and Liberal Democrat figures insist the fight to build a progressive majority within the constraints of the first-past-the-post system will continue.

The optimists insist the desire among centre-left voters to kick Nick Clegg was a one-off. They say the personal attacks on him by the Conservative-led No campaign reminded the Lib Dem leader that the Tories are a ruthless enemy when the electoral chips are down.

In a speech this week, Mr Clegg dismissed as "nonsensical and naive" the "centre-right realignment" talked up by some Tories since the Coalition was formed. "Realignment is a polite euphemism used by one party that wants to gang up on the other gang – with us as a temporary recruit," he said.

Behind the scenes, relations between senior Labour and Lib Dem figures are warmer than you would expect. They work closely together in the House of Lords, notably over the Government's NHS reforms. I am told Mr Clegg would have "given his right arm" to have gone into coalition with Labour in the Scottish Parliament if the election result had been different.

Last week's results were not good enough for Labour. In the council elections, it garnered Lib Dem defectors in the north but its disastrous defeat in Scotland was a stark warning that it cannot take all the anti-Clegg votes for granted. Labour did not do well enough in the south of England, fuelling grumbling from those inside the party who want Mr Miliband to target the Tories rather than woo Lib Dem supporters. However, he reassured the doubters at a Shadow Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, insisting he recognised the need to take votes from both other parties.

Mr Cameron's performance may convince voters to give him an outright majority next time. But he still has a lot of persuading to do. After all, 52 per cent of voters backed two parties opposed to immediate spending cuts, while the Tories managed only 36 per cent against a clapped-out Labour Party with an unelectable leader. It is not impossible that the Lib Dems will again hold the balance of power next time. The cause of those who hope Britain's progressive majority will assert itself is not yet lost.

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