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

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, Security Cleared

£100 - £110 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Ham...

Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based i...

Junior Developer- CSS, HMTL, Bootstrap

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading company within the healthcare ...

Junior Web Developer- CSS, HMTL

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading company within the healthcare ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Prime Minister David Cameron walks on stage to speak at The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) annual conference on November 4, 2013  

Does Cameron really believe in 'British Values'?

Temi Ogunye
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz