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The Liberal Democrat dream for electoral reform may be dead for a generation... and their 'friends' on the Left have helped to kill it

By Tim Montgomerie

The overnight opinion polls look ominous for the Yes to AV campaign. YouGov gives the No campaign an 18% lead. A ComRes survey for The Independent gives No a whopping 32% lead.

No will be boosted by a massive effort by Fleet Street this morning to get Britain to reject AV. On ConHome's front page we list the latest newspapers to urge their readers to keep First Past The Post. The Mirror has, belatedly, backed Yes (as a way of kicking Cameron) but it has done so too late and with too little editorial clout to even to begin to change the fact that the Labour vote is split on what to do.

If you want to understand why Chris Huhne, in particular, is behaving so appallingly you have to understand the importance of electoral reform to the Liberal Democrats. That's the subject of Danny Finkelstein's Times column (£):

"Electoral reform has long been everything to Liberal Democrats. The solution to every problem, the title to every policy paper, the chorus to every song. I promise you. You have to have seen it to believe it. Thus for Liberal Democrats, finally — after all that talking, all those motions, all that work — getting a referendum on electoral reform and losing it is a catastrophe. A total and complete catastrophe. It would be something like the impact on the UK Independence Party of finally forcing a referendum on membership of the European Union and then having the other side win. It wouldn’t be a passing nuisance, it would be an historic setback. Now, it isn’t over. Unpredictable turnout makes the result unpredictable. But I think it is fair to say that my friends’ countenance reflects the expectations among Lib Dems in the Government that they are highly likely to lose. And that this would be, for them, a bad thing."

It's not just defeat in the referendum that should depress Liberal Democrats. The debate in the Labour Party should tell them that they are unlikely to get a better deal from Ed Miliband. Half of Labour voters are set to reject AV. Most Labour MPs are against AV. The weakness of the Liberal Democrats in opinion polls has given Labour fresh hope that they'll pick up enough northern and urban seats from Clegg's party that they can win again under First Past The Post. In thirteen years of Labour government there was no electoral reform for Westminster. Ed Miliband has just told the Today programme that AV is the only change to the way we elect our MPs that he supports.

The Liberal Democrats need to understand that the door to electoral reform has been locked and bolted, perhaps, for a generation. It hasn't just been bolted by the voters it's been bolted by the majority of the Labour movement. Most Labour MPs don't share the Kinnock-Miliband/ Cable-Huhne view that there's a progressive majority. They know that most Lib Dem activists lean left but they know that Lib Dem voters are more diverse. As Danny Finkelstein says in his column, the rejection of both electoral reform and the possibility of a progressive alliance has huge implications for Liberal Democrat strategy.


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