Alex Massie

A Tory Case for Electoral Reform

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David Aaronovitch's column today is excellent. He makes a case for David Cameron coming out and supporting the switch to the Alternative Vote. The key bit:

The pessimism that Conservatives invariably express about their fortunes under electoral reform is based on a particular assumption about the British electorate — an assumption that belies their constant invocation of “the great ignored” or the silent majority. The assumption is that there is a natural majority for the Centre Centre Left in Britain, a majority that only the division of the two centre-left parties within the first-past-the-post system neutralises. So the current system operates (in Tory eyes) as a perpetual pro-Tory gerrymander.

I don’t think this is true, and I never really have. There have, over the years, been as many Lib Dem voters willing to give the Conservatives their second preferences as Labour. And after the experience of coalition, that tendency could be strengthened. If Mr Cameron is bold, then he crushes the notion that the default British political position is centre-left, and establishes that a centre-right orientation and combination of interests can be more natural for Britain. He does for Conservatism what Tony Blair wanted to do, but couldn’t, for new Labour.

Of course a “yes” wasn’t in the manifesto and isn’t a long-term Tory policy. But these days, what is?

Good point! Not least because it's not a million miles from an argument I made back in May:

Previously many pundits - and politicians - had assumed that the Labour-Liberal Democrat arrangement was the obvious fit. But now the Tories have first mover advantage and can overturn that presumption. Assuming, again, the coalition holds, it will be vastly easier to form a Tory-Liberal alliance in the future than it would have been to come to such an arrangement had the Lib Dems already become accustomed to sharing power with Labour. That really could have been a nightmare scenario for the Conservative party - especially if future parliaments were elected using the Alternative Vote.

Now, however, it is the Conservatives who have that advantage. I understand that there are ministers close to Cameron who are prepared to make it quite clear that no view has been taken on campaigning against the Lib Dems in 2015. In other words, there are some Tories prepared to at least war-game the notion of campaigning on a coalition ticket in five years time. The significance is that this is not being ruled out immediately. And from this one can construct a Tory case for embracing the Alternative Vote...

This may be thought to be getting ahead of ourselves but, actually, it's simply sensible to imagine these things. Again, exploiting first mover advantage Cameron has the opportunity to flip British politics on its head, making a Tory-Liberal alliance the "natural" or default presumption when all other matters remain equal.

This may not seem a great prize to some but, actually, it's the difference between spending more time in government than on the opposition benches or, you know, not.

I think that some Tories also view matters in this fashion and there are certainly some on the left who fear just this sort of thing actually happening. And if you work off the useful presumption that, in terms of politics, anything that discombobulates the opposition is worth considering then this fear alone might concentrate Tory minds.

Furthermore, if a referendum on AV was successful it actually makes the next election simpler, not more complicated. AV would allow the coalition to urge voters to vote the coalition 1, 2 across the country without compromising their principles (or prejudices!) in any way. 

Again, you might think it cynical to suggest that a government's first duty is to secure its re-election but there's a place for cynicism in politics. For the Conservatives, that means keeping Nick Clegg away from Labour come what may. Which means that there's an excellent case for some kind of pre-election arrangement confirming that the coalition seeks re-election as a coalition, package deal.

Under FPTP this would be more awkward than it would be under AV. I can't see the parties dividing up the country and running just one candidate per constituency so a deal will require some nodding and winking about the strenuousness of local campaigning. In Labour-Lib Dem seats, for instance, the Tory election effort might be considered rather feeble. And so on.

In any case, as Aaronovitch points out, if an AV referendum is defeated, the conseuqnces for the coalition could be severe. Not just in terms of the impact on this parliament but because of what might happen after the next election. It's certainly possible that if the Tories help kill AV then Clegg will find it easier to do a deal with Labour in 2015.

Clearly the parliamentary arithmatic may make such concerns moot. But what if it doesn't? This being so, don't be surprised if senior Tory ministers end up campaigning for a Yes vote in an AV ballot.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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