I am just back from a long weekend away and one of the things that I have been mulling over is how we can win the AV referendum next May. I expect my thoughts on this might prove a bit controversial but hey ho.
Although initial polls suggested that there was a majority in favour of changing the electoral system, in recent weeks these numbers have slipped to the point where the "yes" and "no" support seems to be roughly equal. Polling wisdom suggests that unless a referendum starts with the camp that is looking for change with a decent lead then they are fighting an uphill struggle. It is always difficult to defeat the status quo. Pollsters at the moment are muttering that as things stand the referendum will not be won.
At the same time, Labour have kicked up a huge fuss about some of the measures attached to the bill that includes the AV referendum. Their concerns are largely related to voter registration in individual constituencies when the number of MPs are reduced as well as some other things.
I already blogged last week about how I feel that some of the concerns being expressed in this area appear to be opposition for opposition's sake. I have found myself increasingly frustrated with the attitude of some in Labour's ranks.
However, in politics you have to be a hard-headed realist if you want to get things done. So let me go through a quick run-down of where we are, where we want to get to and how we might get there:
1) We want to win the referendum on AV. I know it is not the STV that we really wanted but it is a step in the right direction. It will reduce negative campaigning and ensure voters can vote for smaller parties without their vote being wasted. Also, if we do not win the referendum then it will be a significant blow to the Lib Dems and could cause problems for the government.
2) The indications are at the moment that winning the referendum will be an uphill struggle and even with an almighty effort on the part of the Lib Dems, if the rest of the political establishment largely falls behind the "no" camp we may simply have no chance. I don't mean to sound defeatist here and whatever other parties do I will fight tooth and nail to win but as I said I am trying to be realistic and pragmatic here.
3) As the bill currently stands, Labour will likely vote against it. This will then ensure that the "no on AV" camp within Labour will be in the ascendency, after all they will have just voted against the bill that contains the referendum. Even though it will be largely because of the non-AV stuff within it there will still be momentum.
4) This could then lead to Labour being split on this, or even largely against a "yes" vote in the referendum campaign.
In order to avoid this sort of scenario, we could box clever. The bill could be split as Labour have suggested into the AV referendum bill on the one hand and the constituency resizing and other measures that they have problems with in another bill on the other. That would then back Labour into a corner. A referendum on AV was in their manifesto. They have said time and again that they are not against it in principle, it is the detail of the resizing etc. that they are against.
This solution would mean that they would have little justification in opposing the AV referendum bill. It is possible they might still kick up a fuss about the date but if the government had magnanimously acquiesced to their demands for splitting the bill then further quibbling like this would likely go down pretty badly and I would expect they would back it. It would leave them free to argue against the measures they have the real problems with. The AV "yes" Labour element would be back in the ascendancy again with momentum on their side internally. It would give the newly elected Labour leader something to throw their weight behind with legitimacy from their own ranks. And let's not forget that the new leader will have just been elected using AV! It will be easier for them to argue for a "yes" vote than a "no" vote under those circumstances.
One final point I would like to make here is one that Peter Mandelson made very eloquently in the TV programme that was broadcast on the BBC on Friday about the formation of the coalition. Amongst a number of very impressive contributions, he said towards the end that the future of politics may now be pluralistic and based around coalitions. He advised that his party should bear this in mind if it ever wanted to get back into power. I believe that he is onto something with this and that it is ultimately in Labour's own interests to back a "yes" vote. What better way is there for them to signal that they would be willing to compromise with the Lib Dems in the future than for them to help them win the referendum?
But in order for them to help us, we need to help them first.