Wednesday, 20 April 2011

"No" to AV - so what?

The anti-Coalition majority on are in triumphalist mode at present as successive ICM and YouGov polls suggest the referendum on the voting system on May 5th is going to result in a decisive rejection of the Alternate Vote (AV) system and the retention of the First Past the Post (FPTP) system by some 58% to 42%.

As I suggested in an earlier piece, the rejection is being led by the elderly who, the polls, suggest, are likely to vote at least 3-1 against AV.

Mike Smithson suggests the AV campaign has failed to get its message across but I think that's half the story. At a time of uncertainty and in difficult economic times, people are insecure, defensive and fearful of any change. The response to any proposal to close a library and the outcry against proposals to transfer forests to private hands suggests an almost pathologiocal desire to keep the ststus quo even if the arguments for change are overwhelming. Through low interest rates, the elderly have suffered badly from the recession and a defensive, insecure and worried electorate are always going to be resistant to change and open to suggestions on cost and impact that would otherwise be ignored.

Nick Clegg got the referendum but misjudged how unwilling a worried public might be to accept any sort of change. Had such a referendum been held in 1997, I think it would have carried. In better times, people will be willing to accept change, in bad times, they won't.

The anti-Coalition Right are already proclaiming the "No" vote a slap in the face for Nick Clegg and the death-knell of the Coalition while commentators like the odious Iain Martin in the Daily Mail are only too happy to kick Nick Clegg and berate David Cameron for not being conservative enough.

Such simplistic analysis misses the point which is no more than I would suspect from such weak thinkers. The truth is that most Liberal Democrats are not supporters of AV, the party has long backed STV and I suspect many Liberal Democrats are as opposed to AV as they are to FPTP. This won't help Nick Clegg in the short-term but with the distraction of AV removed, it will enable the party to rally decisively around STV as the only viable option,

Indeed, future dealings with both the Conservative and Labour parties can now be underpinned by a desire to introduce STV which is a much more attractive and sellable option than AV or like-minded options. It's fair to say that the other two parties only support FPTP because they believe they can win absolute majorities unsing it. When one of the parties realises they can't win under FPTP, they'll drop it like the hottest of potatoes.

The second important consequence of a "No" vote is that it will take away the distraction of voting systems and allow the Liberal Democrats to get on with the business of Government and there's more than enough to be getting on with in that regard. Questions about the intervention in Libya and the strength of the economy remain and need to be tackled.

There's nothing much for Liberal Democrats to be worried about from a "No" vote on May 5th though the Council election results (as well as the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections) the same day are likely to be poor. Removing the distraction of AV doesn't end the process of electoral reform and STV will be on the table in any future Coalition. The priority is for the Liberal Democrat proposals to be enacted and for the country to be a better place by 2015. A good start has been made.

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