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The 1922 Committee moves to sink AV

Screen shot 2010-07-03 at 08.41.54 The papers this morning give the Government's proposed referendum on the Alternative Vote that attention it deserves - given that change could transform the political landscape.  Unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail is against dropping first past the post, warning that it could lead to weak Government.

"And despite being described by many as a system of 'proportional' representation, the Lib Dem peer Lord Jenkins actually rejected AV as ' increasing disproportionality' when he looked at changing the election system.

And if it's unfair to the voters, it's even less so to the Tories. At the last election AV would have taken 26 seats away from the Conservatives, and given 22 of them to the Liberals and four to Labour.

There is a danger - and it's huge - that AV could make it virtually impossible for the Conservatives ever to win an outright majority in Britain again.

Our country would have to settle for weak collegiate government; there would be no place in this new world for strong and decisive leaders like Margaret Thatcher."

The Guardian, in just as predictably taking the opposite view, completes the setting out of the basic battle-lines.

"Start at the beginning. Is Britain's first-past-the–post parliamentary election system the best possible? How can that be when only 33,000 votes get you a Labour MP, 35,000 get you a Conservative MP but 120,000 are needed to get you a Liberal Democrat. Should it be changed for a more representative system? More than two MPs in every three were elected to the current parliament with less than 50% of the votes cast, and not one received the support of 50% of those entitled to vote. Would the alternative vote system (AV) be an improvement? Yes, because it would do away with minority mandates, though it is not perfect. Should a significant change in the electoral system be put to a referendum of the voters? Yes. Should such a referendum be held on what is, increasingly, the country's regular election day, the first Thursday in May? Yes again."

The Independent also backs change, writing largely from the point of view of the Liberal Democrats -

What is more, with the two leaders ranged on opposite sides, there are obvious risks for the coalition. And the risks are far greater for the Liberal Democrats than for the Conservatives. Defeat for AV would mean not only loss of face for the smaller party, but the demise of an issue that has helped define it. Their political platform would then look very threadbare well before the next election.

But that is to jump ahead. In the more immediate future, we look forward to an invigorating constitutional debate of the sort we have too rarely in this country. AV, from the point of view of this newspaper, leaves much to be desired; it is not proportional representation (PR). As a step towards modernising our democracy, however, it would be a shift in the right direction.

The Daily Telegraph, though opposed to AV, concentrates instead on asking whether voters really care very much one way or the other. (See also the Times cartoon above.)

It's clear from both the editorials and news coverage that three issues are emerging which could decide the referendum - and, indeed, whether the bill proposing it gets through Parliament at all.  The first is the controversial timing of the referendum, apparently agreed at Nick Clegg's wish to boost turnout by aligning the vote with next May's Scottish, Welsh and local elections.  The second is whether or not there should be, as I argued yesterday, a turnout threshold for any poll.  The third is lumping together in the same bill a referendum on the voting system and a reduction in the number of Westminster constituencies.

Labour are already manoevering to knock out the cut in seats from the bill, hoping to terrify Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs into voting to "save their seats" - thus derailing the whole measure.  Bernard Jenkin emerged yesterday as an early voice for the threshold, and the Guardian claims that the 1922 Committee is moving to table amendments to the bill.  Jenkin was elected recently to the '22's Executive and the paper reports that he's been appointed by it to negotiate with Ministers over the referendum.  It's certainly hard to believe that he hasn't discussed the matter with fellow Executive members.

We may have to revise our way of thinking about the Coalition as an alliance of two parties, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.  Perhaps - and '22 backbench committee elections will be a test of the thesis - it's better thought of as a partnership of three: the Cameron/Clegg Government leadership, the Liberal Democrats...and the Conservative backbenches.

Paul Goodman


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