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 assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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.

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