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  1. Politics
8 May 2011updated 12 Oct 2023 11:11am

Huhne: Cameron’s No will prove a pyrrhic victory

Energy Secretary warns PM that the genie of electoral reform won’t go back in the bottle.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

Chris Huhne has an interesting op-ed in the Independent on Sunday today. The conventional wisdom has it that the result of Thursday’s referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) has extinguished the hopes of electoral reformers for a generation.

Huhne certainly thinks AV is “dead and buried”, but he refuses to accept that the cause of reform was snuffed out last week. On the contrary: “When change comes, as it will, it is likely to be more radical.”

He rightly points out that the deep structural defects in the British electoral system, to which AV would have been only a partial remedy, remain and will continue to sap political legitimacy in this country.

The problems to which electoral reformers are responding have not gone away and will continue to demand an answer. British society is increasingly pluralist, and the trend to diversity is accelerating. In the Fifties, only 4 per cent of voters rejected Labour and the Tories. Now the figure is a third. Once Labour and the Conservatives dominated our politics. Now Liberal Democrats, Greens, Nationalists and others demand a voice.

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The attempt to squeeze diversity into the fraying corset of two-party politics is likely to lead to more and more unfair results. Already, the regional representation of the parties is distorted, with the Tories under-represented in the north and Scotland despite substantial votes, and Labour similarly anorexic in the south. Both parties speak first to their regional bases, respectively ignoring urban deprivation and aspirational affluence.

And the success of the SNP in Scotland makes things even more volatile. Huhne describes Alex Salmond’s victory in the Scottish elections as a further “lurch towards diversity” that the success of the No campaign in the referendum on AV will do nothing to halt, let alone reverse. And were Salmond somehow to win a referendum on Scottish independence, Huhne goes on, electoral reform would be forced on England:

The Conservative Party is so strong in England that our-first-past-the-post system tends to give it English majorities even more often than British ones. Without Scotland, the Tories would have an overall majority now, plus another two since the war. Scottish independence would force electoral reform just to avoid incessant Tory governments in England.

For Kremlinologists, the most striking part of the article comes towards the end, when Huhne warns his cabinet colleague David Cameron to learn the lessons of history:

The Conservative Party only embraces constitutional change after it has happened, but it is very likely that [David Cameron’s] very personal big No will prove a Pyrrhic victory. The lessons of Irish Home Rule are clear. By resisting even the smallest improvement in our constitutional arrangements, the Conservatives set Ireland on course to the 1916 Easter rising and independence. The rejection of the Alternative Vote, combined with the rise of the SNP, is going to put our political system under unprecedented strain. The failure to release pressure means that the tectonic plates will eventually move further and faster. History shows that the Whigs were right. The world must change if it is to stay the same.

There was also a shifting of “tectonic plates”, to borrow Huhne’s metaphor, around the cabinet table last week, of course. But he insists (as did Nick Clegg on The Andrew Marr Show this morning) that the unpleasantness of the AV campaign, which pittedcCabinet colleagues against each other, hasn’t undermined the coalition: “You do not give up on a business contract just because you catch your partner indulging in sharp practice, but there will inevitably be more formality and an insistence on proper procedure.”

Clegg was singing from the same hymn sheet. He told Marr: “There’s a lot of heat in an election campaign but we move on. It’s not a merger or a marriage between two political parties.” We can expect to hear that line a lot in the next few weeks as the Lib Dem leadership tries to placate the party rank and file.

As for Huhne, it looks as if he is going nowhere – for the time being at least.

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