Over the past few weeks a perception had been developing that adoption of the AV system, whilst not generating unparalleled excitement and passion within Labour ranks, was at least becoming the line to take. That perception has now changed.
Labour’s internal stance on the issue is important. Labour supporters effectively represent the referendum’s ‘floating voters’. Successive polls have indicated a clear majority of Conservative voters opposing AV, with an even greater proportion of Lib Dem voters (admittedly, a rare species at present) supporting its introduction. By contrast, Labour’s electorate remains relatively evenly split on the issue. How it breaks next May will probably prove decisive.
Labour backers of AV have long regarded the endorsement of Ed Miliband as their trump card within the party. But Labour’s new leader remains wary of allowing himself to be played. Though some close advisors have identified AV as an issue that could help define his leadership, and assist his courtship of the Lib Dems, others see the pitfalls.
It is difficult to underestimate the importance Labour officials are placing on next year’s Scottish and Welsh assembly elections, plus the English local elections. Not only are these seen as the start of the reconstruction of Labour’s fractured local authority base, but they also represent the first major electoral test for both the coalition and the Party’s new leadership team. Whilst significant gains are predicted for ‘Super Thursday,’ the assumption is the AV referendum will probably be lost. Why, the argument goes, should Ed Miliband risk associating himself with a losing cause, whilst simultaneously acting as a human shield for Nick Clegg, for whom referendum defeat would be a political catastrophe?
The Liberal Democrat leader continues to play Banquo at the 'Yes' campaign’s banquet. Even Labour MPs who are sympathetic to the AV cause find it hard to associate themselves with a campaign many view as Clegg’s final chance of preventing the fragmentation of his party and, in extremis, the Government.
One Swan doesn’t make a summer, and 114 Labour MPs don’t equate to a certain ‘No’ vote next May. But momentum is important in politics. Yesterday, within Labour, the momentum shifted.