I have been reading a great deal about the forthcoming Alternative Vote referendum. I am not going to discuss the merits of the Alternative Vote about which I have not yet come to a view. I do however want to challenge one piece of wisdom that is floatng around, which I think is wrong.
Several commentators are saying that a vote for the Alternative Vote would do more harm to Cameron that a rejection would do to Clegg. The grounds for saying this are some rather wild comments that have appeared in certain articles by some right wing commentators writing in the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and on the internet. These comments are fiercely critical of the Alternative Vote and of David Cameron for agreeing to hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote. They reflect the standard view of the Conservative Party, which is to oppose the Alternative Vote and to stick with first past the post, though they express it with extreme vehemence. These comments have been seized on by some centre left commentators who support electoral reform and the Alternative Vote and who are using these comments to suggest that Cameron would be in serious trouble if the referendum result were to be a yes vote for the Alternative Vote.
The analysis is wrong. I think it comes from a natural desire on the part of these centre left commentators to overcome the reluctance of Labour voters to vote for something wanted by Clegg. Cameron would not be in any serious trouble if the referendum for the Alternative Vote were to go in its favour. The right wing commentators who write the articles dislike Cameron anyway. Though they undoubtedly do reflect a current of opinion within the Conservative Party whilst the Liberal Democrats stick with the Coalition Cameron has nothing to fear from them. However angry they may be with Cameron no faction within the Conservative Party will move against Cameron if by doing so the existence of the Government is put at risk. If a right wing faction within the Conservative Party were to oust Cameron then the Government would immediately fall since it is inconceivable that the Liberal Democrats would stick with the Coalition if Cameron were no longer heading it. There would be a General Election, which the Conservatives having exposed their divisions would lose. No Conservative however angry he or she may be with Cameron would want to trigger such a course of events, which could only end with Labour being returned to power probably with a big majority.
Cameron therefore has nothing to fear from a vote for the Alternative Vote. On the contrary since a vote for the Alternative Vote would strengthen Clegg and would secure the existence of the Coalition, Cameron has everything to gain by it.
By contrast Clegg would be in serious trouble if the Alternative Vote were to be rejected. One of the main selling points of the Coalition to the Liberal Democrats is that it provides at least the possibility of electoral reform. If the Alternative Vote is rejected and there is no electoral reform then the Liberal Democrats will be faced with a future in which the next General Election and probably all other General Elections for the foreseeable future will continue to be fought under the existing rules. In that case and given the hostile attitude to the Coalition on the part of many centre left voters who have in the recent past voted or considered voting for the Liberal Democrats there is a serious risk that at the next General Election the Liberal Democrats might be wiped out. Even if they were not the overwhelming probability is that one or other of the two main parties would secure a majority in which case the Liberal Democrats would be right back where they started and once again in the wilderness. Given this prospect and the feelings of anger and dismay many Liberal Democrats would undoubtedly feel if the Alternative Vote were rejected a challenge to Clegg’s leadership would surely come measurably closer. What after all would the Liberal Democrats as a party (as opposed to individual MPs) have to lose? Since they would be faced with the certainty of defeat and loss of power at the next General Election anyway many Liberal Democrats might calculate that getting rid of Clegg and ending the Coalition as quickly possible might be their best chance of rebuilding their support amongst centre left voters. Is it in fact too much to suggest that some such positioning is already going on and that Vince Cable’s public disagreements with Cameron on the subject of immigration are being made with precisely such calculations in mind?
If this analysis is correct then we have the curious situation of a referendum in which the leaders of the two big parties are publicly taking positions, which may be the opposite of the ones they hold in private. Cameron in order to appease his supporters has to pretend to oppose the Alternative Vote even though he probably wants the referendum to go in its favour. Milliband in order to please his supporters has to pretend to support the Alternative Vote when he probably would prefer to see it rejected. I would suggest that it is precisely because of this ambiguity in the positions of the leaders of the two big parties that the campaign for the Alternative Vote referendum has so far failed to take off.