In advance of a referendum, voters often ask a single question. How do we give the Government a kicking? In other European countries, where referendums are held more regularly than here, a cause can be lost on these grounds alone. As the referendum on the Alternative Vote moves closer into view, the question is posed again. What is the outcome that gives the current coalition a kicking?
Related questions arise from this broader opening one. Would a No vote compel Nick Clegg to listen more to his party, which at its conference last weekend voted against the reforms of the NHS? Would a Yes vote lead to such tensions within the Conservative party that some of its MPs started to rail against the consequences of coalition?
The problems with these questions are the answers. One side of the Coalition is going to be boosted by the result of the referendum and the other undermined. It is impossible to give the Government a kicking as a whole – which is what referendums are commonly used for and which is one of several reasons why I am against them. The two sides that form the Government seek conflicting outcomes. Discontented voters can give Cameron a bit of a kicking, or they can knock Clegg around a bit. They cannot deal a blow to them both.
So there is no point in viewing the referendum in terms of its immediate political consequences. Either Clegg will have a ropey few months, or Cameron will. One will be content. One will be discontent. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Cameron and Clegg are quite often seen as interchangeable, but there are important moments when they are not. This is one of them.
I suspect that other policy areas will land both of them in trouble, but not the referendum on the Alternative Vote. That will land only one of them in difficulties, albeit severe ones. A policy area that is more explosive in terms of its impact on both is the proposed NHS reforms. I noted Nick Clegg nodding enthusiastically during Prime Minister's Questions yesterday as Cameron sought unconvincingly to defend the changes. A visitor from Mars would not have realised that Clegg was the leader of a party that had voted a few days earlier to oppose the reforms.
The Deputy Prime Minister's body language is curiously revealing during the weekly sessions. He manages to convey distance from Cameron on AV, and vivacious support whenever the Prime Minister moves on to the virtues of spending cuts, public-service reforms and attacks on Labour's record. On these occasions Rosencrantz could be mistaken for Guildenstern and Guildenstern for Rosencrantz, but not on the referendum.
I had formed the impression that, privately, Clegg has some doubts about the NHS reforms but the affirmative body language suggests otherwise. He is at odds with his party on an emblematic issue that will dominate this parliament. For Cameron, the dangers in relation to the NHS are equally obvious. At Prime Minister's Questions, Ed Miliband was able to revive credibly the slogan that the Conservatives cannot be trusted with the NHS. As far as their revolutionary plans for the NHS are concerned, Cameron and Clegg are in it together. On electoral reform only one of them is in some danger.
For once in a referendum the actual issue must be addressed, given that there is no way voters can protest at the Government as a whole. But this presents problems too. The choice is between two silly systems. First-Past-the-Post has the advantages of simplicity and transparency. But the distortions are absurd, from Labour landslides on a relatively small percentage of the vote, to the outcome of the February 1974 election when Harold Wilson became prime minister even though Labour secured fewer votes than the Conservatives.
On the whole, though not in recent elections, the system has favoured the Conservatives. It will do so again now that the referendum is being accompanied – dubiously – by changes to constituencies that benefit Cameron's party at the expense of the others.
Yet the Alternative Vote is silly too. I ask its more enthusiastic advocates on a near-daily basis how it is that the second preferences of those who come last are counted up, but not some of the others. I still have not had a satisfactory answer. Those who come last seem to have considerable influence under AV. It is almost worth coming last to exert influence on the outcome. No wonder no one is a great enthusiast, including those leading the Yes campaign. Most of them would prefer a different system, or at least a wider choice of different systems in the referendum.
But AV does mean that more votes will matter in determining the outcome of elections, and to a limited extent will bring an end to the rotten, narrow focus on a few marginal constituencies that can swing an election under the current system. More voters will feel their visit to the polling station is worthwhile.
So the two systems have some positives amid their overall silliness. In terms of substance they battle it out towards a low score draw. How weird that in the UK we have few national referendums – and now that we do have one, the choice is uninspiring.
There is one final way, a third way, of contemplating the forthcoming referendum. It is the way all three parties contemplate it. What would be the likely outcome of elections under AV? The parties make their calculations out of self-interest. I do not blame them. It would be perverse to support a voting system that harms the party you support. There are limits to altruism in politics. Even here the answer is not clear, which is why Labour is split on the issue, with Ed Miliband supporting the Yes campaign and a significant section of his parliamentary party in opposition. Some of those supporting the Yes campaign are ambiguous precisely because of that earlier question. They would like to give Clegg a kicking, even though in doing so they would be helping Cameron. Even the kicking is silly, or has silly consequences.
Labour and Tory opponents of AV both point out that the only certainty is that the Lib Dems will win more seats, and that this will lead to more hung parliaments. I can understand why this should alarm some Conservatives in spite of coalition unity, as most Lib Dems are on the centre left. In the longer term Labour has less cause for alarm. When the party won landslide majorities it was still fearfully cautious and would be if it were to do so again.
As I have written before, I became a convert to electoral reform during those landslide governments, when it was clear that a greater influence from the Lib Dems would have compelled Labour to be less fearful. Instead Blair/Brown were free to ignore the Commons and yet were terrified of some newspapers, a destructive combination.
Even on distorting landslides, AV is not decisive. Labour would have been wiped out in 1983 under the system, as the Conservatives would have been in 1997. Britain's first national referendum since 1975 comes about for reasons of manic expediency and offers the most limited of choices. But that is how referendums arise here. The last one, on Europe, was offered by Harold Wilson to keep the Labour Party united. Still, we must choose. With reservations, and in the vague hope that the change proves to be a catalyst for more robust progressive politics, I shall vote Yes.