Matthew Elliott is Campaign Director of No2AV.
During the Christmas holidays, the cross-party NO to AV campaign announced the names of over 100 Labour MPs – almost half of the Parliamentary Labour Party – who will be voting no to the Alternative Vote at the referendum in May.
Their decision seems to have caused some confusion. The Labour Party manifesto in May promised a referendum on the subject of AV, but did not commit the Labour Party one way or the other. To accuse these MPs of hypocrisy, as some have done – most notably the so-called Labour Yes camp led somewhat surprisingly by Ben Bradshaw who, as Jonathan reported, seems to have undergone a damascene conversion on the Alternative Vote – is to misrepresent the original manifesto commitment. In fact, it is no different to David Cameron promising this referendum in May and placing his full support behind a ‘no’ vote – which is what he has done.
This impressive show of support for a ‘no’ vote from Labour brings together senior figures from every wing of the party and plenty of its new generation, including many MPs elected for the first time in 2010. I’m sure they feel a little strange to find themselves on the same side as the Conservative Party, which will be campaigning for a ‘no’ vote – but it’s right that an issue as important as this should rise above party politics.
Constitutional reform should be about what’s best for the country, not one particular party or special interest group. Sadly, some people can’t seem to put partisan instincts to one side – as this report commissioned by the Yes campaign just before Christmas showed – you may also like to read this blog from the very same author who, a year ago, wisely said: “At a time of economic crisis, when people are calling for clear leadership and direction, it would be foolish to abolish a [voting] system that carries out these functions.”
The truth is, both Labour and the Conservatives might sometimes win more seats under AV – it would have inflated Tony Blair’s already large majorities in 1997 and 2001, for instance, and given Margaret Thatcher even more seats in the 1980s – but it would have done so by exacerbating the swings against the other parties. Is that really the ‘reform’ the Yes campaign want to see? I certainly find it very odd to hear them claim that the first-past-the-post voting system ‘gave us the Iraq war’ and then prescribe a change which would have given Tony Blair an even larger majority…
Meanwhile, the one party which would consistently benefit from a switch to AV is remaining curiously silent about the benefits it could enjoy. Experts ranging from Professors Rallings and Thrasher to YouGov’s Peter Kellner and Oxford’s Vernon Bogdanor all agree that it’s the Liberal Democrats who stand to benefit most from a change to the Alternative Vote. Projections of the last general election show the Lib Dems would have won up to 32 extra seats under AV last May. Peter Kellner puts the politics of the matter most starkly when he says:
[Nick Clegg] had a compelling reason to insist on a referendum. He knew his decision to join an axe-wielding, Conservative-led coalition could well cost his party votes at the next election. With AV, it would retain many seats it would otherwise lose. Without AV, the Lib Dems’ prospects at the next general election could be bleak.
So it’s no surprise to find that the people pulling the strings behind the Yes campaign are mostly Liberal Democrats. We revealed the extent of the Lib Dem domination of the Yes campaign in a dossier earlier this month. Five out of six of the Yes campaign’s steering committee have worked for or explicitly supported the Liberal Democrats in the last 12 months, and at least half of their so-called ‘grassroots co-ordinators’ are former Lib Dem candidates, councillors and activists.
Why is this news, you might ask? Well, in a campaign about restoring the British people’s trust in politics, I think it’s important for all sides to be honest about who they are, and why they’re arguing for or against this proposed change to our voting system. The Yes campaign like to pretend that they’re non-politicians, but scratch the surface and you see that they’re dominated by lifelong politicos and Westminster insiders who have their own vested interests.
You can be a Conservative in broad support of the Coalition and in the work that Lib Dems MPs like Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and co are doing, but that is very different to supporting a voting system that positions the Liberal Democrats as the ‘Kingmakers of British Politics’ (in Professor Bogdanor’s words). Governments should be chosen by voters, not the MPs of Britain's third party.
I’m proud to be leading a genuinely cross-party campaign which isn’t trying to hide the political links of the many people supporting us – but which is able to put those party ties to one side and work together to stop an obscure, unfair and expensive voting system being forced on our country.