Cameron won’t campaign against AV in referendum

by Stephen Tall on June 7, 2010

Yesterday’s Times reported the news that David Cameron has decided not to spend his political capital campaigning against electoral reform, whenever the referendum on changing from first-past-the-post to the alternative vote is to be held:

Cameron insisted he remained a supporter of the present voting system: “I will not change my view that the alternative vote is not an improvement to first-past- the-post, so I will make that clear at the time.”

However, he also made clear he would not play an active role in the “no” campaign: “I will have other things to do as well.” …

Some in Cameron’s inner circle think that as long as the introduction of the alternative vote goes hand in hand with reform of constituency boundaries to equalise their size, it is unlikely to damage Tory prospects at the next general election.

Today’s Spectator muses that this is part of Cameron’s drive to keep the coalition together:

If the referendum on AV was lost, Nick Clegg would face loud and sustained calls from his party to pull out of the coalition. To most Liberal Democrats, it would be unclear what they were getting out of the Coalition if they weren’t getting a change to the voting system. For this reason, there’s considerable chatter in Westminster that the Tory leadership while nominally opposing a change, will not campaign hard against it. In other words, they’d be prepared to see the AV referendum pass if that was what it took to keep the Coalition together.

I find that an unlikely scenario myself.

If the referendum on voting reform were lost, the Lib Dems would likely suffer some collateral damage from its defeat – it would almost certainly consign the party to third party status for another generation to come. And we would risk looking petulant if, having been defeated on a public vote, we then decided to take our ball home, and bring down the coalition. I find it hard to believe the voters would look on approvingly.

What I find a more likely explanation of Cameron’s semi-U-turn is this: what argument can he use against the Alternative Vote? Unlike a system of proprtional representation, AV retains the constituency link which some hold to be of paramount importance.

The principal argument Cameron has used against AV in the past is that it leads to weak, unstable government – which is a tricky case to argue while simultaneously leading a coalition government which you’re presenting as the face of ‘new politics’.

Moreover, does Cameron really want to show himself to be an opponent of change, a roadblock to reform? True, he’s a Conservative – but does a liberal Conservative really believe voters should be denied the choice of marking their order of preference of candidates standing for election? After all, even the Tory party uses a bastardised form of AV to elect its leader, with MPs getting to choose their preferred candidate on successive ballots with the two victors facing an all-member ballot.

Finally, there is the very real chance the referendum will see the electorate opt for AV – opinion polls indicate a majority in favour. And no Prime Minister ever willingly places themselves on the losing side of an argument with the public.