Cameron won’t campaign against AV in referendum

Yesterday’s Times reported the news that David Cameron has decided not to spend his political capital campaigning against electoral reform, whenever the referendum on changing from first-past-the-post to the alternative vote is to be held:

Cameron insisted he remained a supporter of the present voting system: “I will not change my view that the alternative vote is not an improvement to first-past- the-post, so I will make that clear at the time.”

However, he also made clear he would not play an active role in the “no” campaign: “I will have other things to do as well.” …

Some in Cameron’s inner circle think that as long as the introduction of the alternative vote goes hand in hand with reform of constituency boundaries to equalise their size, it is unlikely to damage Tory prospects at the next general election.

Today’s Spectator muses that this is part of Cameron’s drive to keep the coalition together:

If the referendum on AV was lost, Nick Clegg would face loud and sustained calls from his party to pull out of the coalition. To most Liberal Democrats, it would be unclear what they were getting out of the Coalition if they weren’t getting a change to the voting system. For this reason, there’s considerable chatter in Westminster that the Tory leadership while nominally opposing a change, will not campaign hard against it. In other words, they’d be prepared to see the AV referendum pass if that was what it took to keep the Coalition together.

I find that an unlikely scenario myself.

If the referendum on voting reform were lost, the Lib Dems would likely suffer some collateral damage from its defeat – it would almost certainly consign the party to third party status for another generation to come. And we would risk looking petulant if, having been defeated on a public vote, we then decided to take our ball home, and bring down the coalition. I find it hard to believe the voters would look on approvingly.

What I find a more likely explanation of Cameron’s semi-U-turn is this: what argument can he use against the Alternative Vote? Unlike a system of proprtional representation, AV retains the constituency link which some hold to be of paramount importance.

The principal argument Cameron has used against AV in the past is that it leads to weak, unstable government – which is a tricky case to argue while simultaneously leading a coalition government which you’re presenting as the face of ‘new politics’.

Moreover, does Cameron really want to show himself to be an opponent of change, a roadblock to reform? True, he’s a Conservative – but does a liberal Conservative really believe voters should be denied the choice of marking their order of preference of candidates standing for election? After all, even the Tory party uses a bastardised form of AV to elect its leader, with MPs getting to choose their preferred candidate on successive ballots with the two victors facing an all-member ballot.

Finally, there is the very real chance the referendum will see the electorate opt for AV – opinion polls indicate a majority in favour. And no Prime Minister ever willingly places themselves on the losing side of an argument with the public.

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14 Comments

  • The only argument against AV is that it is sometimes less proportional than FPTP. Since the Tories dont think that proportionality is important, they cant use that argument. Therefore they cant argue against it seriously, and arguing that the electorate shouldnt have more choice is not going to be popular.

  • Patrick Smith 7th Jun '10 - 7:47pm

    The success of the national referendum on AV is the sine qua non of the Liberal Democrat led part of the `Coalition Government’ in reform of the constitutional reform required.

    I believe that there is an excellent case to put before the people as most should see that something has not been right in fairness in our present FPTP electoral system, especially since 1951.

    The voting reform from FPTP to AV is a positive step in the right direction in `Fair Votes’ but conversion of public opinion from AV to STV.

    Change from single to multi member constituencies will surely later present as a much harder job in the next Parliament in five years time?

    AV Referendum success is dependent on Liberal Democrat local `Fair Votes’ campaigns to demonstate why AV is needed now and STV next time.

  • Paul Griffiths 7th Jun '10 - 8:34pm

    While being more optimistic than Mr Smith about the difficulty in moving from AV to STV, I do think that PR campaigners in general, and Lib Dem activists in particular, may have a vital role to play in the determination of the new parliamentary boundaries. Assuming that, as in the past, there will be opportunities for local input into the reviews, one of the criteria we should be using to judge any proposals should be the prospect of later amalgamating adjacent constituencies in a sensible manner.

  • I’m not sure that campaigning in the referendum for the AV as stepping stone to STV will be productive.
    It risks putting off people from voting AV, either because they’re happy to have AV but not convinced about STV (I’m not for the Commons actually, and STV is far more complicated, and you won’t be able to mention it without having to explain it.. good luck with that!) or because it will make them think that AV is a bad lesser option and therefore should not be implemented (but there’s obviously zero chance of ever getting STV if an AV referendum fails).

  • Paul Griffiths 8th Jun '10 - 6:24am

    Sandra, I completely agree that advocating AV as a path to STV should not be part of the public referendum campaign. It would, as you suggest, blur the message.

  • I agree that the campaign shouldn’t mention STV, but in the constituency preparations it would be foolish not to use the opportunity to look at the possibility of combining them at a later stage.

    I actually don’t think that, for the electorate, the leap from AV to STV is that great. For most people, the biggest change is from using an X to vote (or more than one X) to 1-2-3. Once AV has been used a couple of times, the only difference people will see in the switch to STV would be the number of candidates – yes, I know the way the votes are counted is different, but for the overwhelming majority of the electorate that’s about as important as the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin.

  • Andrea Gill 8th Jun '10 - 12:38pm

    “The principal argument Cameron has used against AV in the past is that it leads to weak, unstable government – which is a tricky case to argue while simultaneously leading a coalition government which you’re presenting as the face of ‘new politics’.”

    Precisely – and Cameron would be shooting himself in the foot big time if he campaigned about AV too hard.

    Some interesting articles on why AV should be embraced by the Conservatives below:

    http://www.respublica.org.uk/blog/2010/06/av-only-option-21st-century-conservatives
    http://www.respublica.org.uk/blog/2010/05/why-conservatives-should-not-fear-av

  • Andrea Gill 8th Jun '10 - 12:49pm

    @David – Interesting, though I suspect he’d rather just shed the nastier elements of his own party

  • so we can have a referendum on voting big deal .I want to know when we are going to have a REFERENDUM on europe,iwant to be able to say yes or NO to the pigsty i will not call it anything else as all the countrys have their snouts in the trough .DAVID SAID REFERENDUM ON EUROPE WELL WHERE IS IT.?????

  • Oh by the way the billions we waste on europe every year would help our economy recover,( and the only good things that ever came out of France Germany & Spain were Our troops at the end of the war

  • I think that the many voters and mp’s who are angry with the lib dems will make the vote sink without trace. What is the purpose of the coilition then?

  • David Allen 3rd Jul '10 - 3:55pm

    Yes, the good news is that Cameron truly prefers to be the leader of a permanent Con-Dem alliance. And the bad news is that Clegg truly prefers to be the deputy leader of a permanent Con-Dem alliance.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 3rd Jul '10 - 5:24pm

    “… the good news is that Cameron truly prefers to be the leader of a permanent Con-Dem alliance.”

    You should bear in mind that he wants it to be called “The Conservative Party”.

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