I have just read an opinion poll that puts the no campaign in the coming Alternative Vote referendum ahead with an overwhelming 30% lead (65% No as against just 35% Yes). If the result turns out to be anything like as lop sided as these figures suggest then the cause of parliamentary reform will have been put back for decades. If this does indeed happen then both the Liberal Democrats and the centre left commentators in the Guardian and the Independent who supported the Liberal Democrats in last year’s General Election need to ask themselves some serious questions.
The simple fact is that a defeat on anything like such a scale exposes the disastrous miscalculation both the Liberal Democrats and the centre left commentators who supported them made before, during and after the General Election. This miscalculation was so obvious that I could not understand how they could have made it. Briefly, in any vote on the subject of electoral reform it is a given that the bedrock Conservative vote, which accounts for 30-35% of the electorate, will always vote to preserve the status quo. Whilst the Liberal Democrat vote will always support change at between 20-25% of the electorate it is too small to win the referendum by itself. The only way that such a referendum could be won would be if the bedrock Labour vote, which also accounts for 30-35% of the electorate, could be induced to vote in its favour. The subject of electoral reform is never going to be one to excite the sort of working class voters who traditionally vote Labour. Persuading them to vote for a reform the most likely beneficiaries of which would be not Labour but the Liberal Democrats is always going to be a struggle. It is a struggle that is almost bound to be rendered hopeless if the Liberal Democrats whose project these voters are being asked to support are in coalition propping up a government led by Labour’s historic enemies the Conservatives. That of course is exactly the situation we have today.
What this in practice means is that the only possible route to electoral reform is through the election of a Labour government just as the only way of securing electoral reform in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was through the election of a Whig government. Just as it took the eventual election of a Whig government committed to electoral reform to pass the Great Reform Act so it will need the election of a Labour government committed to electoral reform to achieve it now.
This I would have thought obvious point seems to have been lost on both the Liberal Democrats and on the centre left commentators who supported then during last year’s General Election. Though Gordon Brown had indicated that he was prepared at least to look at electoral reform the centre left commentators like John Rentoul, John Kampfner, Julian Glover, Polly Toynbee and Martin Kettle who say they support electoral reform enthusiastically joined in the Brown bashing and supported the plots against Brown even though by destabilising Brown in this way they inevitably made it more likely that Labour would lose the election and that the Conservatives would form the next government. During the election itself the newspapers for which they write, the Guardian, the Observer and to a lesser extent the Independent all endorsed the Liberal Democrats, something which also made it likely that Labour would lose the election and that the Conservatives would form the next government. When the result of the election proved to be inconclusive the Liberal Democrats, whose only hope of power in the long term is through electoral reform, chose to go into coalition with the Conservatives who as a result formed the government. If the referendum is indeed lost, as now seems certain, that will have been the moment it was lost in which case, given what I said at the start of this post about the probability that the whole subject will now be relegated to the margins of politics for the next few decades, the decision of the Liberal Democrats to go into coalition with the Conservatives will be exposed for what it was, an act of political suicide.
No doubt some people will say that this is all very wrong and that it is wrong and even foolish for Labour voters to vote in this “tribalist” manner given that were they to vote for the Alternative Vote it would open the way for a coalition of the “progressive majority”. Whether it is wrong or right and whether it is tribalist or not the simple fact is that this is how politics works in this country. Anyone who wants to achieve anything serious or substantial has to start with an understanding of this simple fact.