John Rentoul: Here lies electoral reform. R.I.P.

The political veteran started life as a much-loved idealist but withered away, neglected and outmoded

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After a short illness, Electoral Reform died at home yesterday, while members of her liberal family slept peacefully. She had inspired people with the hope of change throughout her long life. Yesterday one of her admirers said: "We shall not see her like for another 80 years."

The death certificate will not be issued for another six months when the referendum on change to the voting system is held, but the No campaign has already prevailed.

Last rites were read by Andy Burnham, Labour's elections co-ordinator, in a Guardian interview yesterday. He said that Labour's "sole priority" in May would be the Scottish, Welsh and local elections, rather than the referendum on the same day.

But the patient had been declining for months. Last week YouGov reported that 43 per cent said they would vote "to stick with first-past-the-post" and only 32 per cent would "switch to the Alternative Vote for electing MPs". That contrasts sharply with the weekend after the coalition was formed in May. Then, a ComRes poll for this newspaper found 59 per cent support for change, with only 32 per cent opposed.

At one level, the death of electoral reform is historic. It was the great prize of the coalition agreement. A referendum on the Alternative Vote was the most extraordinary of many surprising parts of David Cameron's "big, open and comprehensive offer" to the Liberal Democrats. For decades, electoral reform as the price of co-operation in a hung parliament was the Liberal and Liberal Democrat dream. All at once, on the cusp of its realisation, the dream has faded.

If the referendum is lost, the issue will not be back for a long time. Next year it will have been 80 years since reform was this close. It was in 1931 that Labour introduced a Bill to bring in the Alternative Vote (no nonsense about a referendum then), but the government fell in the economic crisis, before it became law.

Why has opinion turned against electoral reform? Burnham was never keen, having described voting reform as a "fringe pursuit" during the leadership campaign. But many Labour supporters have since decided that it is a bad idea by the simple equation: electoral reform means coalitions and Labour does not like this coalition.

That is why Labour responded to the referendum Bill last week by raging against the redrawing of constituency boundaries, which have been included in the same legislation. Instead of offering a positive proposal to make our democracy better, Labour MPs found themselves in a curious alliance with deep-dyed traditionalists such as Jacob Rees-Mogg. Normally a figure of fun for them, he argued that making constituencies more equal in size should not override ancient, organic local identities.

Labour MPs also made the fair point that cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 600 is an arbitrary gesture of appeasement to anti-politician sentiment. But the principle that constituencies should be more equal is not obviously wrong.

The second factor that will lose the referendum is that it is just too easy for the opponents of change to misrepresent reform. The No campaign can throw everything at it: Italy, Israel, Ireland, Winston Churchill (who described the 1931 attempt as one to give power to the "most worthless votes of the most worthless candidates"), deal-making, fudge-and-mudge, and a system that won't let voters "kick the rascals out".

Against such nonsense defenders of the Alternative Vote can only explain patiently that being able to rank candidates in order of preference gives more voters more of a chance of a say in the outcome. It is not morally superior, or perfection, but it minimises the need for tactical voting and reduces wasted votes. Its supporters can use the slogans "power to the people" and "vote for what you really believe in". But they also have to try to make clear what AV is not: it is not a proportional system.

That is precisely why I would rank AV first in order of preference over all other systems. I am not keen on proportional representation because it tends to give disproportionate power to small parties.

But therein lies the Yes campaign's third problem: for most of its activists AV is a halfway house on the road to what they really want, which is proportional representation, where the number of MPs reflects each party's share of the national vote. (Much jollity last week when one poll put the Lib Dems on nine per cent, which matches their proportion of MPs.)

The Liberal Democrats, we are told, will try to turn the referendum in May into a vote on the idea of parties working together, which voters tell pollsters they like even if political activists do not. I do not believe that this is going to work.

However, the remarkable thing is that the defeat of electoral reform will not weaken the coalition government as much as we might have assumed six months ago.

The Lib Dems are surprisingly quiescent considering how little they have got out of it, while the warmth of many Conservatives towards the idea of the coalition has been a revelation. It is too much to expect the Tories to refuse to run a candidate in Oldham East and Saddleworth, which is the only way that the Liberal Democrats can win there, given that Labour is up in the opinion polls and they are down. But it is interesting that Francis Maude is not the only Tory minister who wants the coalition to continue after the next election even if the Tories win a majority on their own.

It is a shame the the prospect of reform has departed. It would have been a small empowering improvement to our democracy. It would have given more voters more of a say, and so it would have improved the quality of our democracy at the level of the ballot box. But its implications for politics at the Westminster level are unexpectedly limited. And at least nobody has really died.

Follow John Rentoul on: Twitter.com/JohnRentoul

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