Why the odds have shifted against electoral reform

Four reasons why the No campaign is now likely to win next year’s referendum.

Vernon Bogdanor, a frequent contributor to the NS, delivers a paean of praise to the Alternative Vote in today's Financial Times. AV, he writes, "opens the door to a new political world in which coalitions become the norm, and single-party majority government a distant memory".

One should qualify Bogdanor's excitement by noting that, in some circumstances, AV can produce even more distorted outcomes than first-past-the-post. For instance, the Jenkins commission found that if the 1997 election had been held under AV, Labour's majority would have ballooned from 179 to 245, with the Tories reduced to a rump of 96 seats. So introducing AV would by no means consign single-party government to the dustbin of history.

As things stand, however, it looks like we won't get a chance to find out. The odds have shifted significantly against electoral reform in recent weeks. Here are four reasons why.

1. Public support for AV has plummeted

Three months ago, a ComRes poll showed that AV enjoyed a healthy, 27-point lead over first-past-the-post, but the most recent YouGov poll suggests this has shrivelled to just 5 points. The referendum may not be until May (or September, if the Tory rebels and Labour succeed in delaying it), but this is not encouraging for the Yes campaign.

In addition, the psephologist Rob Hayward recently told the FT's Jim Pickard that currently half of Conservative voters polled by YouGov are in favour of AV. That is likely to change once leading Tory politicians swing behind FPTP.

2. Labour's decision to oppose the Electoral Reform Bill

Labour's decision to oppose the Electoral Reform Bill over the coalition's proposed boundary changes caught the Lib Dems off guard. The bill is still likely to squeak through, but the row over Cameron's alleged gerrymandering has, as David Miliband put it recently, "poisoned" the debate.

If Labour does campaign in favour of AV (and some in the shadow cabinet are agnostic on the question) it is likely to be only half-heartedly. As well as those in the party who have never supported electoral reform (the Prescott tendency), a significant number of MPs would now like to see AV rejected, in the hope that the coalition will fall.

3. Voters are disillusioned with coalition government

Today's Independent/ComRes poll found that only 36 per cent agree with the statement "Britain is better off with a coalition government than it would have been if either the Conservatives or Labour had won the election outright", compared to 45 per cent two months ago.

As I've explained above, AV doesn't always lead to coalition governments but, based on current voting intentions and second preferences, it would. We can expect this to be a key weapon in the No camp's arsenal.

4. The No campaign is better organised and better funded

The No campaign already has an experienced team in place, including the Australian pollster Lynton Crosby (who masterminded Boris Johnson's election), two Tory MPs, Bernard Jenkin and George Eustice, as well as James Frayne, former campaign director of the Taxpayers' Alliance, who led the successful referendum campaign against a north-east regional assembly.

As today's Financial Times notes, the No camp can also count on backing from wealthy City donors fearful that AV would lead to a succession of hung parliaments. The Yes camp has neither the organisational nor the financial might to compete with this.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Tim Shipman's Diary

The Sunday Times political editor on poker, pasta – and being called fat by Andrew Marr.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was having dinner with my wife at Padella (which serves the best pasta in London) when the phone rang. It was an irate David Davis. “You’re reporting that a friend of mine has said Philip May wants Theresa to quit. It’s not true. I don’t even know Philip May.” I calmly explained that I wasn’t accusing him and I had his friend on tape. “Who was it?” he asked me. I wasn’t saying. “Well, it’s not bloody helpful,” the Brexit Secretary said before hanging up.

The following day, I woke up to watch Philip Hammond explain to the BBC’s Andrew Marr why his cabinet colleagues had leaked me details of how the Chancellor had branded public-sector workers as “overpaid”. “I don’t know who [Tim Shipman’s] sources are,” he said, after inaccurately suggesting that I was being fed information as part of some Brexiteer conspiracy to discredit the cabinet’s leading Remainer.

On Monday, I did an interview with Eddie Mair in the back of a beer garden in Ireland, where I’m playing cricket. In reality, the leaks had much more to do with colleagues irritated at Hammond’s sometimes grating behaviour. Word reaches me that he regards it all as very unhelpful. It seems odd after 16 years in political journalism to have to say this, but we’re not here to be helpful. It might make sense if our politicians gave us less to write about. Over the past three years, they have delighted us enough.

Back for seconds

Voter fatigue is a recognised problem. No one talks about journalist fatigue. We all hope that Theresa May rejuvenates on her Swiss walk (perhaps regenerating into Jodie Whittaker). Thanks to the decision she took when she last went walking, I’m facing the obliteration of another summer holiday writing a second political tome covering the period since my Brexit book, All Out War, up to the general election. What looked at one stage like the boring second album is now a rip-roaring tale of hubris and nemesis. When I asked for title suggestions on Twitter, there were plenty of votes for “Mayhem” and “Mayday”. The most imaginative was: “The Snarling Duds of May”. Sadly, it’s too long for my publisher.

Catching the big fish

The new-found attention from writing books is a double-edged sword. To my delight, then embarrassment, Andrew Marr referred to me twice as “the doyen” of the print lobby. “We keep trying to stop him,” Marr’s editor, the redoubtable Rob Burley, confided at a rival magazine’s summer party. The following week, Marr said: “The biggest fish in the pool, if only physically, is Tim Shipman…” I got a text from a special adviser friend asking: “Are you paying him?” I pointed out that Britain’s best-known political interviewer had just called me a fat bastard live on national television.

New blood

I make my debut on BBC2’s Newsnight alongside Ash Sarkar of Novara Media, one of the new websites that cheerlead for Jeremy Corbyn. She is nerveless and fluent in her mid-twenties, when I was a tongue-tied naif. People who get the Corbyn phenomenon are rightly getting more airtime. Off the air, she tells me that she’s a “libertarian anarchist” and then asks me where I live. “Are you going to smash it up?” I ask nervously. She smiles. Ash’s main concern is to paint the town red in the Saturday-night sense. A Labour MP draws attention to her Twitter biog, which concludes: “Walks like a supermodel. Fucks like a champion. Luxury communism now!” Bravo. I think…

Brexit gamble

I was greatly cheered by the induction in the Poker Hall of Fame of the late Dave “Devil­fish” Ulliott, the player who did the most to create the TV and online poker boom in Britain. Westminster has a few useful card sharps – Paul Stephenson, formerly of Vote Leave, among them – but I don’t know any politicians who play. By contrast, the US presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all accomplished poker players.

When I worked in the US, I interviewed a member of Barack Obama’s poker circle when he was a state senator in Chicago. The cautious, composed and occasionally bold player he described was the mirror image of the politician we came to know. His Republican rival in 2008, John McCain, preferred the chaotic gambling of the craps table and his erratic campaign reflected that. Too many of the current cabinet seem to be dice men. What we wouldn’t give for Devilfish running the Brexit negotiations.

Blundering through

Anyone who has ever dealt with McCain would have been saddened by the news that he is suffering from brain cancer, but his resilience almost makes you feel sorry for the tumour. McCain is undoubtedly the most media-friendly politician I have ever met. When I travelled on his plane in 2008, he took every question from the foreign press pack and made us feel welcome. Through him, I also met Steve Duprey, the former boss of the New Hampshire Republicans. He was fond of explaining Duprey’s first law: “In politics, before considering malevolence, always assume incompetence.” I have had much cause to remind myself of that over the past three years.

Paranoid android

If you are looking for a summer read, I recommend Jonathan Allen’s and Amie Parnes’s Shattered, a great insider account of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 presidential election effort. It shows how a flawed candidate with little ability to connect with the public presided over a paranoid regime of advisers engaged in Shakespearean bloodletting that led to them coming a cropper when fighting a charismatic populist. On second thoughts, you could always wait to read my second book this autumn. 

Tim Shipman is the political editor of the Sunday Times. “All Out War” is now available in paperback (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue