Cameron’s limp opposition to AV is no surprise

Why a No vote will be a disaster for the PM.

There's considerable confusion among Tories at the moment around the Alternative Vote (AV), and it's not simply due to the party's lacklustre campaigning effort against electoral change, but because some sincerely think Cameron wants the No vote to win. He doesn't. Indeed, for the PM, nothing could be worse, as it will finally bring him and his supporters inside the party up against the reality that they lost the 2010 general election.

The next election, which a No victory will bring substantially closer, is a grim prospect for the Cameroons. Not least because the Tories won't have Gordon Brown around to do Labour's election-losing work for work for them. Every inaction and mis-step by the supposed Tory "No" effort is still further proof of Cameron's desire to see "Yes" win.

Why will the "No" vote be so disastrous for Cameron? Because it will tear out the heart of the Liberal Democrats. For Labour, watching socialism die over decades was one thing, but for the Lib Dems, the defeat of their holy mission, electoral change, on one brutal night cannot happen without it costing Nick Clegg his job – his party will demand a Lenten sacrifice.

Furthermore, it can't happen without the Lib Dems realising that the next election will be fought on first-past-the-post, with their party stapled to Cameron and George Osborne's record. What worth a coupon election when you're tied to a brand as contaminated as that? It won't be considered, and Clegg's successor will seek a way out of the coalition at the first available moment.

It's the lesson every other coalition overseas teaches us: the smaller party prudently looks for its way out. The next election will happen well before 2015.

For all that, the main "No" campaign has been utterly unengaging. Are the polls that show an AV "Yes" lead convincing? More so, for example, than the 2:1 lead "No" had to Common Market membership at the start of the country's previous national referendum, in 1975?

Some Tories muttered that it wasn't a good sign when Matthew Elliott left the Taxpayers' Alliance to head what's currently the largest "No" campaign grouping. The scepticism was rooted in the TA's tendency too often to produce gimmicky press releases rather than hard research, and the fear that their opposition-era unwillingness to criticise Osborne's distinctly un-TAish Treasury team too loudly bore an inverse relationship to the expectations TA staffers harboured of post-election SPADships. In other words, for many on the right, this "No" campaign has always had a tame air to it.

The hard-right sneering at Elliott is doubtless all very unfair when not just downright bitter, but there's still something wrong with the No campaign beyond merely its present unimpressive tactics. It ought to have been Labour-led. Defeating AV is something Labour should have a vested interest in, and most Labour MPs see that. Yet the No campaign is Tory-dominated. Whether Ed Miliband's eccentric preference for AV has held back ambitious Labour flacks from getting involved, or it's been something to do with the culture of No2AV itself, is irrelevant. With Cameron clearly equivocal about stopping AV, as much Labour support as possible should have been sought. Margaret Beckett on a letterhead just doesn't cut it.

At the moment there aren't any "official", Electoral Commission-designated "Yes" and "No" campaigns, just one main, prominent organisation on each side. Should the AV referendum end up being delayed by the Lords, it wouldn't surprise me if a rather more vigorous "No" campaign emerged. However, that's just speculation; what's not is that David Cameron has been even more limp than normal in defence of his alleged beliefs.

A cynic might say that, given his electoral track record, that the best thing Cameron could do to secure a "Yes" vote would be to put himself at the head of the "No" campaign. But that would take courage, and he has never shown any of that. This Tory leader will offer Majoresque delay, evasion and short-term expedients, but whether that will get him the "Yes" to AV vote he so desperately needs is very uncertain indeed.

The bill for losing the 2010 election comes ever closer to being paid by the man who lost it.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496