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5 May 2011updated 17 Jan 2012 6:01am

Ed Balls was right – no, really . . .

The shadow chancellor’s warnings were true: a Labour-led coalition would not have got an AV referend

By Olly Grender

It is no surprise that we are starting to hear that Labour promised the Liberal Democrats proportional representation without a referendum, but with their grandmothers and a free holiday in the Maldives thrown in as part of the package deal a year ago – a deal that the Liberal Democrats appeared to turn down in an astonishing and inexplicable moment of self-denial.

It is only fair to remind ourselves of how it looked on the other side of the negotiating table. Luckily we have the account from a Liberal Democrat perspective in the book by David Laws, 22 Days in May.

It is worth revisiting the relevant moment when AV was discussed:

Harriet Harman said that it would not be easy to get an AV referendum through. “Most Labour MPs will grit their teeth and vote for AV, but let’s be clear that many of my colleagues are not exactly champing at the bit!”

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Chris [Huhne] and Danny [Alexander] continued to argue for a referendum which would include options – either AV or full PR. Andrew Adonis said that Labour would only support an AV referendum. But it was when we tested the commitment on AV that further cracks opened up.

We knew that many Labour MP’s were not in favour of AV and we asked whether any would oppose legislation, knowing that assembling a majority for change would already be tough. Danny asked, “Can we rely on Labour MP’s supporting an AV referendum?”

“That is what is guaranteed in our manifesto,” added Lord Adonis.

There was silence, and then Ed Balls intervened to say: “Look, even AV would not be at all straightforward. In fairness, the chief whip thinks it would be difficult to get the AV referendum through. Many of our colleagues are opposed to it. It cannot be guaranteed.”

It was a deadly intervention . . .

Meanwhile, out on the green in the constructed studios, the old guard of John Reid and David Blunkett were encouraged to go on air and describe the Liberal Democrats as “the whores of British politics”, which is hardly a textbook example of seduction. As one former member of the Labour cabinet said to me: “You were dealing with four different factions of the party in one room.”

Given that any deal with Labour would have relied on all remaining parties in parliament bar the Tories, we now know one more astonishing fact: a Labour-led coalition would have failed to get a referendum through parliament. A referendum that the Tories delivered in spite of their outright opposition to the policy itself. Now isn’t that ironic?

Ed Balls was right all along. Even in parliament – let alone the country – Labour could not guarantee AV.

UPDATE: John Reid has been in touch with the NS to say that he never used those words to describe the Liberal Democrats. We’re happy to make that clear – New Statesman.

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