David Cameron says we should not celebrate victory in the AV referendum. But, mercifully for us all, he has no leverage over me whatsoever. So I shall exult in 6 May 2011, the best day in British politics since the appalling events of 2008 and the disastrous, near-terminal policy errors then made! I have not been so proud of my country or my party for years! It's almost enough to make one a Democrat!
I want to offer two reflections.
1) The destruction of the Lib Dem raison d'etre. I disagree with the Labour Party about many points of detailed policy. Labour wants to spend too much, to regulate too much, it undermines elitism (and hence opportunity), it is captured by destructive equality doctrines, and it is occasionally even incompetent. But Labour is my honourable foe. If Labour wins, that's a pity, but I shake my opponent's hand and say: "Well done, I'll beat you next time." Labour is my opponent, but an opponent I can strive against and live with losing to.
The Lib Dems, by contrast, are not my opponents but my enemy. The Lib Dems must never, ever win, because victory for the Lib Dems would mean the rules of the game changing. Victory for the Lib Dems would not simply mean some errors of policy that I would need (with some pain for society) to undo in a few years time, and some lost opportunities to implement other improvements. Victory for the Lib Dems constitutes destruction of the system, overthrow, constitutional revolution, the end of the game as I and my Labour foe have come to play it. Lib Dems are not my opponents, and though they might compromise to work with me, I cannot compromise to work with them. I would far, far rather form a coalition with the Labour Party, nationally, than with the Lib Dems.
I believe I am far from alone amongst Conservatives in believing this, and hence far from alone in being deeply troubled, in May 2010, when David Cameron appeared willing to compromise on constitutional matters to form a coalition with the Lib Dems. If Lib Dems were foolish enough to accept Cabinent seats to form a coalition with us, that was all very well. If they required us to compromise on tuition fees or NHS reform or welfare reforms, these were all the sort of detailed matters one might negotiate with Labour over. But agree to change the rules of the game just for a moment's power??
Cameron didn't change the rules on the electoral system, as such, of course. He agreed to a referendum. It was a gamble, to be sure, and at times looked like a disastrously imprudent gamble. And it was a gamble that many of us might deny should have been taken. Furthermore, of course, there were other constitutional compromises in the Coalition deal, and I shall come to those in a moment. But first we should understand how utterly destroyed the Lib Dems have been in the vote. A 68% vote for No does not simply end AV. It ends all prospect of electoral reform for decades. If the vote had been close, then perhaps there would have been another try in only a few years. Perhaps a close vote might even have been interpreted as implying that the proper referendum should have been on PR versus FPTP. But 68%… That's the end of this discussion for far beyond the horizon of any modern politician. Anyone proposing a referendum on electoral reform for decades will be laughed away, told not to make suggestions that will simply waste time, money, and patience.
And that is a catastrophe for the Lib Dems. Nick Clegg may have said, bravely, that the Lib Dems are not simply the political wing of the Electoral Reform Society, but in truth that is precisely what they and their Liberal forebears have been since 1921. Their voters may be Conservative-disposition people that have had a bad experience with Conservatives, or Labour-disposition people that have had a bad experience with Labour supporters, but the motive force for their activists has always been electoral reform. It is the raison d'etre, the USP of the Lib Dem party. Without any prospect of securing electoral reform, even in the event of another hung Parliament in the future, there is no point to the Lib Dem party whatsoever.
There are those that suggest we now need to make some additional compromises with the Lib Dems to shore them up. Why? They are ruined. Why should we want to help them? What are you imagining they will do? Team up with Labour and form a government to call a referendum on electoral reform? What threat do they offer? Were you thinking they might drop out of the Coalition and then suddenly discover that they didn't believe in cutting the deficit after all? Forcing a General Election would mean electoral oblivion for them, and even if it didn't and they achieved their beloved hung parliament again, what could Labour possibly offer them that they would be actually interested in having?
Any attempt from within the Lib Dems to end the Coalition – under virtually any circumstances – would split the party. Danny Alexander, Nick Clegg, Jeremy Browne, Sarah Teather, David Laws and various other ministers have tasted power now, and Conservatives have found them congenial and intelligent colleagues. We would be more than happy to keep them on as ministers if their back-bench colleagues were foolish enough to press the point.
As a fig-leaf, and as a way of being magnanimous, we should offer to surrender the NHS reforms. There is little appetite or interest within the Conservative Party in the reforms in their previous form anyway. Far better to give way on the NHS than on House of Lords reform. Even fixed term parliaments – still bogged down in the Report stages and not yet through – can now go into the long grass, increasing the threat to the Lib Dem backbenchers if they do not behave. We should trade NHS reforms for renegotiation on our position within the EU and under the European Convention on Human Rights. The vast majority of the party knows which of these is the true priority.
This brings me to my second reflection.
2) One can win by persuading. Two caricatured extreme positions of political strategy, held by no-one, are these:
a) that voter preferences are entirely fixed, and that the art of political campaigning is to choose where within the spectrum of fixed voter opinions to place oneself to provide the best chance of victory whilst achieving the maximum of one's desired programme;
b) that voters can be persuaded of anything if one has truth on one's side and argues for it with sufficient conviction.
Although each of these claims is obviously going far, much tactical debate and strategy discussion within the Conservative Party has veered heavily towards the (a) concept – that voter preferences are fixed. I shan't rehearse all the ways we have acted as if (a) is true and what I consider to be the blind alleys it has led us up – you can read my many past articles on the point in the unlikely event that you care what I thought. But what the No campaign has shown us, I believe, is that arguing for one's case with vigour and conviction, as David Cameron, George Osborne, Sayeeda Warsi and the Conservative machine as a whole (at least for the final couple of months of the campaign) has done – serving as able understudies to Matthew Elliot's splendid overarching campaign, which magnificently secured a majority of Labour MPs (underlining the point that most of Labour are our opponents, not our enemy) – can shift opinion. As this debate began, opinion polls were very tight between Yes and No. That was still broadly true even a couple of months ago. But once David Cameron began to use his wonderful skills of persuasion and concision to deliver his point, with Warsi providing splendid outrider support, opinion shifted dramatically.
We should learn from this, and be prepared to be bolder. We should believe that if we are sure we are right, and have thought through our case well, then we can – especially David Cameron can – persuade many of the public that we are right. The truth lies much closer to (b) than many Conservative analysts have claimed. Unleash Cameron and the Conservative machine. Tell the public why we must renegotiate with the EU, why subjection to the European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act is unacceptably, why immigration must be controlled, why it is right (not merely necessary) to cut public spending. In truth, on many of these points even many Labour Party MPs agree with us.
If the evidence were that voters cannot be persuaded and that one must chase them, and if we had proved competent in chasing votes (rather than found that the exercise of chasing votes had led to three electoral defeats in a row – 2001, 2005 and 2010), then perhaps one might regretfully have to concede that strategies based around the assumption of fixed voter preference were necessary, and that the business of changing the views of the electorate took generations, not months. But in fact chasing votes hasn't worked, whilst trying to convince voters has. Let's try sticking with a winning strategy.
Here's a new hash tag for you: #No2Compromises. The Lib Dems need this Coalition much more than we do. Give them the NHS reforms and demand EU and ECHR reforms. Then go to the public and convince the voters that EU and ECHR reforms are needed, and dare the Labour Party and Lib Dem backbenchers to disagree.