Steve Richards: A debate that turns politics upside down

The Lib Dems will never commit to a semi-permanent alliance with the Tories. For now, at least, it is in the Conservatives' self-interest to stick with the present system

Thursday 29 July 2010 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


In this summer of unlikely partnerships, yet another alliance is formed. Labour's shadow Cabinet joins forces with Tory rebels to oppose the coalition's package of constitutional reforms, including a referendum on the Alternative Vote. Once more we close our eyes and wonder whether we are dreaming. Cameron and Clegg say "Yes" to a referendum! David Davis for the Conservatives and the Miliband brothers hold placards saying "No!", or "Almost No!" For such a supposedly dry topic, the prospect of a referendum on electoral reform produces painful contortions that seem to make no sense at all.

The Liberal Democrats are desperate for the referendum even though they are not supporters of the Alternative Vote, preferring a more proportional system. Labour supported a referendum on AV at the election and is now opposed on the basis that the proposal is part of a wider package that includes changes to constituency boundaries. The Conservatives opposed a referendum and electoral reform, but now support a referendum while remaining opposed to electoral reform. Speaking from India on the Today programme yesterday, David Cameron accused Labour of being opportunistic, at which point the line went dead.

Perhaps the gods of expedient politics decided to act on the basis that Cameron is being opportunistic too, seeking a change to the size of constituencies on the grounds of fairness while being fully aware that the Tories will be the beneficiaries of the reform. Later in the same programme, Jack Straw popped up to insist that he had nothing against a referendum on electoral reform. It was just a referendum connected to a change in constituency boundaries that bothered him, knowing that Labour would be the main victim.

When it comes to electoral reform there is a reality that has to be acknowledged. In making their moves, parties act out of self-interest. There is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, it would be a little perverse if parties did not act in their self- interest. The problem is that interpretations of self-interest change all the time.

No one goes into politics with the sole objective of changing the voting system, or if they do they must be slightly weird. They become politicians to seek power in order to apply policies in relation to the economy, public services and other areas that touch voters' lives. They want a voting system that makes power possible and fruitful.

Not surprisingly, the Liberal Democrats are consistent advocates of change. They would be less enthusiastic if they had won overall majorities under the first-past-the-post system. During the late 1980s and 1990s, parts of Labour discovered a similar passion. That was because they had ceased to win general elections. When they won by a landslide in 1997 the interest waned within minutes. As the most recent election moved into view they acquired a fresh enthusiasm on the basis that they were well behind in the polls. If they had been well ahead there would have been no offer of a referendum on the Alternative Vote.

Now ambiguity overwhelms fleeting enthusiasm. Labour MPs report increases in membership as disillusioned Liberal Democrats defect. Some joke that they are doing much better without a leader. Quite a few newspaper columnists detect complacency in such jocularity. Their dismissive impression is formed also because the party's leadership candidates utter the occasional sentence that places them a millimetre or two to the left of David Cameron, a stance that meets with most mighty columnists' disapproval. Apart from the jokes, I detect no complacency but a gloomy awareness from most Labour MPs that their party performed poorly at the election and doubts about whether any of the candidates for the leadership are quite up to the task ahead.

Nonetheless, hope mingles with gloom. Some dare to wonder whether they can win next time partly with the help of voters who supported the Lib Dems at the last election. The hope fuels a sudden resistance to the referendum on AV. Why should they campaign for a voting system that helps above all a party leadership currently in enthusiastic alliance with the Conservatives? Why should they vote for a package that includes changes to constituency boundaries when they will lose out? Constitutional change only happens when it suits those making the reforms.

Obviously Clegg and his party will press ferociously hard. They face oblivion at the next election under first past the post. AV would save them. The Conservatives are more interesting. The Independent columnist and former Conservative MP Michael Brown has long been convinced that his party would benefit from a change in the voting system. I am not so sure. At the very least I can understand why a party that wins more often than not in Britain thinks twice about dumping a voting system that has delivered them so many decisive victories in the past.

There are some around Cameron who speak of a new realignment on the centre and centre-right of British politics. It will not happen. The Liberal Democrats might split, but the party as a whole will not commit itself to a semi-permanent alliance with the Conservatives. I would suggest that, for now at least, it is in the Conservatives' self-interest to stick with the present voting system.

Labour faces a much more complicated set of calculations. How the next Labour leader responds to the challenge will define his early leadership. In the short term he will secure a big hit if MPs block the bill that includes the referendum on electoral reform. But the political calculations go much deeper.

One of the country's most respected pollsters tells me he predicts the referendum will be lost by quite a wide margin. He suggests that the only way a big "No" victory could be prevented is if the next Labour leader threw his full force behind the campaign for AV. If he were to do so and there was a "Yes" majority as a result, Clegg would at the very least find it difficult to display the partisan hostility towards Labour that comes so easily to him at the moment. It will be a close call for the next Labour leader whether to bring Clegg's dream to a close or help him to realise it.

Self-interest takes many forms. If the next Labour leader hopes at some point to lead a truly progressive administration and break with orthodoxies that have shaped Britain since the 1980s, he will need help from other parties. When Labour rules alone with artificially big landslides it ignores Parliament and pays fearful homage to parts of the media. A Labour leader would be strengthened and not hindered by alliances with other parties, the progressive wing of the Liberal Democrats and Greens. Step away from the current strange political situation and a change in the voting system is in Labour's own interests.

I doubt if it will happen soon. A change in the near future seems even more impossibly contorted than the current deranged dance around the issue. Cameron wants to help the Liberal Democrats but is opposed to electoral reform. Parts of Labour support electoral reform but at the moment loathe the Lib Dems, who would be the main beneficiaries. The seemingly eternal agonising will not be resolved until two parties support change out of self-interest and are already joined together on the dance floor as they make their move. There is no such neat symmetry as political players limp off the stage for their summer break.

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