Would a “No” on AV keep the Lib Dems in the coalition?

If the Alternative Vote system is rejected in May’s referendum, it could mean greater unity for the

If the Alternative Vote system is rejected in May’s referendum, it could mean greater unity for the coalition, rather than the predicted schism.

In assessing the future unity of the coalition, much of the focus has been on how the Lib Dems in particular would react to the big political events of the parliamentary term so far: the Strategic Defence Review, the Spending Review, Lord Browne's review of higher education funding, and next May's referendum on voting reform.

The assumption has been that, if under pressure from party grass roots and sour public opinion – over their previous pledge not to raise university tuition fees, for instance – in the face of reversed coalition policy, at least some Lib Dems could rebel, or even walk away from the coalition altogether.

The Alternative Vote referendum, expected to take place in May along with proposed changes to constituency boundaries, was reportedly the price Nick Clegg asked for his party's membership of the coalition, back in May.

It is an issue of paramount importance to the party at all levels, thus a "No" result would be a great blow to Lib Dems in government, prompting speculation and, in turn, denials that the party would "walk away" from the coalition if the public rejected AV. If the Tories do indeed actively campaign against reform, it would undoubtedly be a problematic situation.

But Nick Boles, the Conservative MP for Grantham and Stamford, who made a small splash a while back by writing a book calling for an electoral pact between the Tories and the Lib Dems in 2015, has now suggested in an interview that a "Yes" on AV would make the Lib Dems more likely to walk away from the coalition, while a "No" would leave them with no choice other than to stay the course. Boles said, in an interview with the website Yoosk:

If they were to win the referendum and AV were to be brought in, you could imagine a lot of Liberal Democrats saying, "Right, we got what we came for, now we'll withdraw from the coalition and make ourselves an independent voice again on the presumption that in a future election we'll do better than under first-past-the-post." So actually, if anything, they're more likely to leave if they win the referendum. If they lose the referendum, the only thing left to them is the persuade the British people that coalitions are a good thing, and to do that they have to stick with it until 2015.

This point was also made back in July by Peter Oborne (highlighted here by my colleague Jon Bernstein). Given that the Lib Dems seem, so far, to be holding on despite the storm surrounding tuition fees and spending cuts, commentators, including Boles, are agreed that the referendum will be a watershed for the coalition.

Whether a "Yes" on AV will prompt the Lib Dems to take their chances as an independent party remains to be seen. However, it is worth noting that, according to the Guardian's arithmetic at the time, had the last election been conducted under AV, the Lib Dems could have expected a further 20 seats only.

Whatever happens in May, they aren't out of coalition territory just yet.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.