In the warmth of midsummer, it’s tempting to take a more positive view of the world but not so this year. The Budget, the unexpected and humiliating exit of England from the World Cup, Andy Murray’s failure at Wimbledon and continued international jitters have combined to create an anxious public mood.
Tensions within the Coalition Government and between the two governing parties have also continued. Some Liberal Democrats have found the VAT rise to 20% in the Budget very difficult to accept but the rebellion was limited to just two MPs. Yet if the Liberal Democrats have tensions, so do the Conservatives. We know of differences between Prime Minister David Cameron and Defence Secretary Liam Fox and in the background there is the constant low-level sniping against the Liberal Democrats led by pointless propaganda rags like the Daily Mail and supported by some Tory activists.
This faction of Conservative opinion doesn’t want or like the Coalition and would prefer five years in Opposition under a Labour Government to a continuation of the current arrangements. They hope somehow that the Liberal Democrats will be destroyed at the next election and that the Conservatives can govern alone with a majority.
This group, which seems to be led de facto by George Osborne is opposed by David Cameron and this widening schism within the Conservatives suggests it is they rather than the Liberal Democrats who will be most profoundly affected by the experience of Coalition.
The announcement of a referendum on changing the voting system next May has caused the anti-Lib Dem faction in the Conservative Party to swing foursquare behind the current electoral system. Cameron has said he opposes change to the voting system which is fair enough but he will NOT actively campaign for a “No” vote.
Deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg will find some Tories willing to campaign for a “Yes” vote while Labour finds itself (as it has been since mid-May) out-manoeuvred and irrelevant. With the Coalition comfortable with both sides of the argument, Labour finds itself unable to carve out a distinct position. Do they join forces with Cameron and vote “no” which will be strange considering Labour were supporters of AV in their manifesto or do they join forces with Nick Clegg and back a change ?
AV is NOT proportional – it’s not the answer (STV is the answer) but it’s better than FPTP. More proportional systems would have produced very different results to FPTP. The common theme is that the Conservatives did best under FPTP while the Liberal Democrats would have done better under any other system.
AV tends to exaggerate majorities and concentrate closeness. Analysis of previous results shows that the Labour majorities in 1997 and 2001 would have been larger but so would the Conservative majorities of 1983 and 1987. 1992 would have seen John Major returned with a majority of 5 rather than 21.
The Conservative argument AGAINST AV seems to consist purely of a hostility to the fact that it treats the Liberal Democrats better. Look at STV for 2010 and you see BOTH the Conservatives and Labour losing out by 60 and 50 seats respectively.
The battle lines are being drawn – Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, a few Tories and rather more Labour supporters in the “Yes” camp and the bulk of the Conservatives with a few Labour people in the “No” camp. The “No” camp will have a significant financial advantage and is likely to have strong media support with papers like the Mail, Sun and Express likely to be on their side. The “Yes” camp will probably have more people on the ground and it is to be hoped that “Yes” will win next May.
Some believe a “No” vote will hasten the demise of the Coalition but that’s stupid and naive. The Liberal Democrats have already got a lot out of the Coalition and they are going to get more as time goes on. The role of the conscience of the Coalition is theirs and as the really unpleasant and vindictive side of the hard Conservatives gets more and more evident, I believe the electorate will look to the Liberal Democrats as the vital check-and-balance to the vengeful Right.
The truth of the Coalition is the truth of a potential re-alignment of the centre and centre-right of politics. It’s not what many or indeed most thought re-alignment would look like but the war for the heart and soul of the Conservative Party has been joined. AV is just one battle.