10 May 2010


Despite my aversion to prediction, I’d be prepared to put money on the next general election taking place under the first-past-the-post electoral system. The obstacles in the way of even the introduction of the alternative vote – which is in no sense a system of proportional representation – look too great under just about any scenario for the resolution of Britain’s post-election stalemate.

The main reason is simple: there is almost certainly a Commons majority against even holding a referendum on electoral reform, comprising the overwhelming majority of Tories and a substantial minority of Labour MPs. The absolute maximum David Cameron is prepared to concede to the Lib Dems on electoral reform (at least as far as anyone is aware) is a free vote in the House of Commons on whether or not there should be a referendum. And the best that Labour can offer the Lib Dems is a promise to whip its MPs to back a referendum – a promise that would be difficult to keep despite a referendum being pledged in Labour’s manifesto. (A bill introducing AV without a referendum is in my view not a realistic option, in part because, as a constitutional bill, it would have to be subject to a free vote, in part because it would appear to be shameless gerrymandering. But we shall see ...)

Precisely what the numbers are no one knows. The third of MPs elected for the first time are obviously an unknown quantity, and there are no reliable records of views on electoral reform even among the returnees. Plenty of people, among them Gordon Brown, have changed their minds.

Nevertheless, having followed this story for getting on for 20 years, my best guesses are (a) that at least 20 Labour MPs are died-in-the-wool supporters of the FPTP status quo whose opposition even to a referendum is such that they would defy the whip to stop one; and (b) that no more than a half-a-dozen Tories would vote for a referendum in a free vote (and most of them would toe the party line in a whipped vote on a referendum that would be a de facto vote of confidence in a Labour-Lib Dem government or Labour government with Lib Dem support).

I could of course be wrong – but even if I am, and a referendum bill were to be passed, what would happen next? Hunch tells me that a referendum would be most likely to take place the same day as the next election, which would be held under FPTP. (There are reasons for the hunch that I'll explain anon if anyone's interested.) But even if there were a referendum before the next election, how would it pan out? With the Tories and the press lined up against “destabilising” change, the chances are that reform would be rejected.

I’m sorry if this seems unduly pessimistic, but the time for electoral reform was in Labour’s first term a decade ago. It’s one of those big changes that can only be introduced as a matter of principle by a popular government with a stonking majority. I suppose Brown and Clegg might just bet the bank on "instant AV", and it might just carry in parliament ... but I really can't see it.

  • Update 1 Well, it really is desperation stakes ... The Tories are now offering a referendum on AV (Hague goes "the extra mile") and Labour, with Brown on the way out, appears to be touting instant AV. I might be wrong here, but I'm sticking to my guns about what transpires.
  • Update 2 I must say that the Lib Dems' negotiating strategy has been brilliant ... they've got offers much better than they could have hoped. Still sceptical on electoral reform, however.

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