Thursday, 25 March 2021

AV referendum: a view from the sharp end

 There was an interesting programme on Radio 4 last Saturday evening. The thesis of the show by Camellia Sinclair (producer) and Chris Mason was that the AV referendum of 2011 was virtually a dress rehearsal for the Brexit referendum of 2016. The same eminence grise, Matthew Elliott, was behind both successful regressive campaigns. 

Mason highlighted the financial pitch made in the AV referendum, but, on the ground, here in South Wales at least, Nick Clegg was the key factor. The opponents rapidly turned the campaign away from the merits of AV into a referendum on Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems decision to join a coalition with the Conservatives. It was interesting to hear the revelation that Lib Dems in the cabinet were incensed by Osborne's decision to line up the Tories in active opposition against the proposal, which Chris Huhne in particular took as a betrayal of the understanding between them. This sense of betrayal was mirrored by that on the part of Lib Dem activists at the sight of leading advocates of AV on the Labour side, Peter Hain prominent among them, going back on their principles and joining the anti campaign. 

It should be remembered that AV is not Liberal Democrat policy and entered coalition discussions only because Gordon Brown put it on the table as part of Labour's pitch to go into coalition with Lib Dems. One assumes that it remained there in talks with the Conservatives only because Clegg and Danny Alexander, who led the negotiations for the Liberal Democrats, were relatively recent converts to the party and were unaware of the merits and demerits of the various preferential voting systems. AV was never going to inspire long-standing Liberal Democrats to campaign enthusisatically for its introduction and that perhaps was an additional, if minor, factor in the success of the anti campaign.

The programme concluded with a few "what if?" questions. One can add a couple more: what if the arithmetic had been right, and we had chosen to go in with Labour in a coaltion? Brown had promised to introduce AV unconditionally (no referendum), but of course he would still have had to carry the House with the necessary legislation. Could he have whipped enough Labour MPs to do so?

Then of course there is the big one. Instead of an AV referendum in 2011, there could have been one on EU membership. Clegg would have been given credit for sticking to a manifesto commitment and regained some of the trust lost over student loan rates. Miliband would have been onside rather than fatally ambiguous like his successor, Jeremy Corbyn. Almost certainly, "remain" would have won.

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