Five days after the General Election, David Cameron called an important meeting of the Parliamentary Party. This was after a disappointing campaign and election result. He needed the Party’s consent to offer the Liberal Democrats a referendum on AV in order to put into place a coalition government – the implication being that if we didn’t, then Gordon Brown would.
A number of us at the time thought this was a concession too far, and subsequently voted against the idea when it came before the House of Commons. I believe the Parliamentary Party should have had a ballot on this fundamentally important issue. This could have been organised at very short notice, as were subsequent ballots on less important issues.
At the time I advocated playing hardball with the Liberal Democrats. What was uppermost in people’s minds was the dire state of the economy, jobs, immigration, NHS etc – not the voting system. The Lib Dems knew that if they had formed a minority government with Labour they would have taken a hammering. Not only would they have kept Labour in power but the country would have had an unelected Prime Minister yet again. Such a minority government would not have lasted and most sensible Lib Dems knew this. There was simply no other game in town.
Yet the Lib Dems were playing a clever game with a weak hand. This was subsequently confirmed weeks afterwards, in a newspaper interview, when Clegg now admitted he had not been offered concessions on AV by Gordon Brown after all. Had we known this at the time, there would have been no need to offer the Lib Dems a referendum.
Of course AV is a terrible system. As I pointed out to Nick Clegg during his introduction of the AV Bill in the House of Commons, AV can play a democratic "con-trick" on electors as they can never be sure what government they will get. I asked him what he would say to those Labour sympathisers who were persuaded to vote Liberal Democrat in marginal seats by the slogan "Vote Lib Dem and keep the Tories out". There was no answer.
The evidence suggests that this "conning" of the electorate will be more likely under AV because coalition government becomes more probable. There can be no scientific analysis of how AV would have affected previous election results, but BBC research suggests this would have been the case during the last five elections under AV.
Indeed, had AV been in place during the last election, research suggests the results would have been 281 Tory, 262 Labour, 79 Lib Dem and 28 others – the Lib Dems could have formed a coalition with either main party. The fact that it is perfectly possible for most electors to vote for a particular party and yet find that party being excluded from government is the biggest disadvantage with AV.
In addition, in the many constituencies where the frontrunner fails to get 50% of the vote, AV gives disproportionate influence to the second vote of extremist minority parties. This is not good democracy.
Yet, despite all these dangers, if the No campaign wins then the Prime Minister will understandably be regarded as having been politically astute. With no clear working majority, he tied the Liberal Democrats in with a promise of a referendum on AV and then made sure we won it. The country would judge the Lib Dems harshly if they walked away from the coalition after this, as Clegg has in effect admitted. The gamble had paid off for the benefit of the country. This may well happen.
My concern is that we underestimate how close this vote will be. Some on the NO2AV side take comfort from just how badly the Lib Dems are doing in the polls – down in the early teens. But when it comes to AV, the frustrated Lib Dem figure will rise to over 20%. On a low turnout this could be significant.
Furthermore, one should not underestimate the Liberal Democrats when it comes to local campaigning. There is evidence that they are not putting up local election candidates in safe Tory wards in the hope that this core NO2AV vote will feel it hardly worth turning up on the day. To a Liberal Democrat, this issue is of crucial importance and will have tied at least some of them into the Coalition Government.
The Prime Minister is correctly tackling the financial mess left by the previous government. He will need all the good news he can muster over the coming period. Let us hope the AV referendum comes to be seen as an astute political move.