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AV would be bad for Britain - but not necessarily for the Conservatives

Cameron and Clegg - studious The Guardian claims this morning that a referendum on replacing first-past-the-post with the alternative vote for Westminster elections will take place next May.  It adds that Nick Clegg will make an announcement on Tuesday, and that the proposal will be linked to a reduction in the number of Westminster seats.

Whether or not the story's right in every detail, it's not being denied, and we're set to hear more next week.  The matter's full of paradoxes.  The Conservatives do badly under FPTP - we need a double-figure poll lead to scrape a majority, while Labour's has barely to climb into single figures - but stoutly support it.  Labour do well under the system, but went into the last election signed up to a referendum on AV.  The Liberal Democrats want proportional representation, but although AV isn't proportional they're none the less backing it.

Of course, they'd gain at least some Labour transfers in seats where we're slugging it out with them for first place.  This largely explains their tactical support for change.  It's also - since we don't know the degree to which this would happen - a reminder that while the consequences of introducing AV are often forecast with dogmatic certainty, they're actually what Donald Rumsfeld would call a "known unknown" (with some unknown unknowns too, doubtless).

We don't know how Liberal Democrat transfers would split between the two bigger parties, or how many would be made at all.  We don't know what the effect of change would be on the vote of the minor parties and independent candidates. We don't know whether, at the next election, the Coalition Government will still be in office. Above all, we don't know whether AV would win out in a referendum in the first place - or even be certain that a referendum bill, and particularly the cut in Westminster seats, will get through the Commons.

However, some outcomes are more probable than others.  A referendum bill's likely to succeed, since the leadership of the two main parties is committed to a poll, as was Labour's manifesto. Conservative backbenchers and members are set against AV.  So David Cameron's unlikely to resile from his opposition to it, even if he wanted to.  The new Labour leader, whoever he (and, yes, it will be he) may be, could drive a wedge between the Coalition partners and cosy up to Clegg by declaring that on AV "I agree with Nick".  A referendum campaign could only strain the Government.

No wonder Cameron's already made it clear that he won't be on the front line of the fight against AV.  MPs and activists will be battling there instead.  Many are searching for an equivalent of the knock-down argument that won the north-east regional assembly referendum - in that case, that change would mean more politicians costing voters more money.  It's fair to say that one hasn't emerged yet.  Instead, we're facing the prospect of arguing on the doorsteps that AV is more likely to produce weak, unstable Coalitions.  To which one response will be: "So why are you supporting this one?"

But it shouldn't be mission impossible to find ways of framing the truth: that AV isn't a more fair system - indeed, it can exacerbate swings.  And why should election winners be the least unpopular candidates rather than the most popular ones?  Tory MPs should push on the floor of the Commons for a turnout threshold in any referendum: it would be wrong for the electoral system to be uprooted by, say 51% of voters on a 25% turnout.  It would also be against Electoral Commission guidelines for a poll to be held on the same day as local, Scottish and Welsh elections.

If AV wins through, the most crucial element in the next election may be how Liberal Democrat voters transfer.  It's often assumed that they'd go Labour en masse.  But it ain't necessarily so: in the London Mayoralty poll, they split evenly between Boris and Livingstone.  If the Coalition's still in place whenever the election takes place, and it's fought on AV, Liberal Democrat voters may have come to see the Conservatives as sensible partners, not outright opponents.  Then again, they may not: who knows?  But this uncertainty's a reminder that while AV would be bad for Britain in principle, it might just not be so for the Party in practice.

Paul Goodman


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