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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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