Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 1 August 2010

To win the AV referendum we may need to accommodate Labour concerns

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.


SomeBeans said...

But our coalition partners are not in favour of AV, so are unlikely to acquiesce to splitting the bill in order to bolster support for AV (which is likely to go through anyway).

Doktorb said...

One problem with the AV referendum campaign, if Labour set out from the start to be so closed-minded about the whole thing, is the association with the Liberal Democrats and making it a referendum on US, not the subject of voting reform.

It will be very easy for Labour to trot out an ignorant campaign based around the 'sell out' claims they throw at us, avoiding any discssion on the merits of AV. How many people on your Twitter feed mention "gerrymandering" as fact, when it's nothing of the sort? That kind of mis-reporting will be more of a challenge than trying to explain how AV works...

I believe Labour would like the constitutional reforms being offered. Sadly they are having one of their far-left spasms, so will oppose for the sake of it to see us defeated.

Tim McLoughlin said...

Splitting the legislation would help get past what many in Labour see as the ill thought out and partisan reduction in seats. It would make the AV referendum easier to win as I know that then many Labour people would vote for and campaign for it.

Mark Thompson said...

@SomeBeans That will be a challenge but not insurmountable. The Lib Dems via Clegg are in charge of the constitutional reform stuff. If we can't deliver the legislation in the way that we want then it could fatally undermine the coalition.

@Liam You may be right but I hope you are wrong. There will always be some in Labour (as in all parties to be fair) who are tribalistic and will just oppose come what may. The problem at the moment is that that tendency regarding AV are on the march. We can stymie them by compromising. I'm not saying it will definitely work but even if it does not, at least we will have tried. That may earn us some brownie points with the electorate too.

Mark Wadsworth said...

The key to AV must surely be that you would not be required to rank all candidates.

So if there are five candidates in your constituency, you can just use your first vote, or use your first and second, or however many you want.

Therefore, the people who genuinely prefer FPTP and those who would only ever vote for one party anyway only have to cast one vote - what have these voters lost from the switch? Nothing.

But those who like using all five of their votes have gained something.

So it looks like a win-win to me.

paul barker said...

I would question your basic assumption that having Labour on side makes victory more likely. Given the continuing anti-politics feeling, the less "politicians" on our side the better. All our campaigning should be through cross-party groups.

dazmando said...

I think the only way of getting AV through would be to split the vote perhaps with a delay. Although does this mean the other parts of reform will be lost.

Jon Harvey said...

As a very long time campaigner for electoral reform (I started as a schoolboy 40 years ago), I don't want to see this debate over AV (which is a step in the right direction - although not far enough of course) descend into tribal politics. I wish the tribalists within the Labour Party would just go back to writing their memoirs and those in the Lib Dems would stop treating the Labour Party as a monolithic beast - which it isn't. (As you identify, Mark).

This is a time for some constitutional statesmanship & stateswomanship (yes I am talking about you Harriet) with a degree of subtlety that the likes of the Neanderthals in the politics can only dream about.

I just hope there are enough solid and wise people working well inside both parties to ensure that babies are not thrown out with bathwaters....

That said - the 'gerrymandering' of constituencies will look just like that if different rules are applied across the UK with seats in Scotland and SW suddenly being exceptions...

Emma Burnell said...


If you really want to work with Labour on this (an outcome I see as desirable but not essential), then you might want to look at the way you talk about us.

For example "That would then back Labour into a corner" could just as easily be "that will free Labour to campaign for something in their own refenndum".

Remember that while there are some anti-AV people in Labour, there are far more in your coalition partners. so being so rude about us when you'll want every campaigner possible on your side is counter-productive.

Mark Thompson said...


So maybe if I hadn't been tired after driving for half the day back from up north then I might have said something like "that would then put pressure on Labour to follow through on its manifesto commitment".

However to be fair, compared to many bloggers of all parties I tend to be quite moderate in the way I refer to political opponents and I try to be fair minded to their arguments. In this case I do feel there is a fair degree of opportunism at foot, hence my default inclination to not be so charitable on this occasion.

Anonymous said...

Labour would certainly back a separate Bill in favour of an AV referendum. The problem is that that's not the controversial part of the legislation. The bits Labour likes are the bits you like. The bits Labour doesn't like are the bits the Tories like. Splitting the Bill would be fine by Labour and in the interests of the Lib Dems, but would be a problem for the Tories.

So the question for you is: who is the "we" in your headline? Your problem is that it's the Lib Dems, not the Coalition. The Lib Dems might well be prepared to accommodate Labour's concerns. I'm not sure the Tories are. And it's up to them, not you.

(By the way, I'm a Labour supporter who is perfectly happy with the idea of an AV referendum and had no dispute with our manifesto commitment on it, doesn't feel very strongly about AV either way, and will probably vote "no". I think this view is pretty widespread in the Labour Party.)

Mark Thompson said...

I'm not sure why this should be such a problem for the Tories. The Lib Dems are bound by the terms of the coalition agreement to vote for the measures regarding adjustment of constituency sizes etc. anyway. This would just be a way of separating them out so that those voting for the different measures could be clear which ones they were for and against rather than feeling compelled to vote against something they agree with because it includes measures that they do not.

I would expect both bills to pass through the Commons with decent majorities.

Oh, and I take issue with the point you make in your second paragraph: "It's up to them (the Tories), not you.". That's not right. We are in a coalition not a dictatorship. And Nick Clegg is the cabinet minister responsible for this legislation so if anything, it is up to us not them!

Sunder Katwala said...


Yes, this would help those of us in the Labour Party who will be trying to make sure as much as the party campaigns as strongly as possible for an AV yes a lot - and would give us a v.good fighting chance of winning the debate inside Labour about that.

I don't see the risk to the Coalition or the Conservatives, given LibDem promises to then support the other Bll under the whip. The calculation was made that one Bill would get through and two might not; the alternative reading looks more plausible.

I think you might probably get the Bill either way, but the single Bill will have done much damage to the Yes coalition we would need to win it.

Patricia said...

Get real, 12% in the polls, what hell chance have we got of getting this through? It will take a miracle.
We will be very lucky if we are not split soon, let alone worrying about splitting the labour vote, in fact, if we slip much further in the polls, we will be lucky to form a coalition with anyone.
Labour will win this and they will succeed in getting FPTP retained and they will never allow the Tories to gerrymander parliament and the boundaries back by us Liberal Democrats? FGS Mark wake up, we are in serious trouble here!

Labour Matters said...

Splitting the enabling Bill into AV and the rest doesn't "box Labour into a corner" at all - we would then back AV and oppose the rest.

The problem you have is that the joining of the two measures in the first place was a political act by the coalition (to wrong-foot a Labour Party which largely supports AV). It also shows who the senior partner of the coalition is - Tories who oppose AV.

So when we mostly fight for a 'no' vote, remember that it was your coalition which played politics first.

You're going to lose the referendum, by the way.