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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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.