The AV referendum campaign is hotting up. The No campaign are throwing a lot at it, and seem to have captured the initiative. By and large they are deploying the same old arguments (e.g. “save one person, one vote”), which are nonsense to those that know about the system, but which still serve to muddy the waters. What has changed is the weight of campaigning. David Cameron is taking a very high profile; it looks like the full Tory machine is distributing literature. The Tory friends in the press, like the Evening Standard here in London, are throwing their weight in. Opinion polling seems to show this is paying off.
But the campaign looks more Tory by the day. So perhaps it is natural for Vince Cable to hit back to suggest that first past the post (FPTP) is a Tory plot to win power against “the progressive majority” of Labour, Lib Dem and (not usually mentioned, but relevant) Green voters. What helps this argument is that the Conservatives clearly seem to believe it. They are so vehemently opposed because they think it kills their chances of ever winning a majority. One of the Tory papers (the Mail, I think) suggested with horror that Mrs Thatcher could never have won under AV. Mr Cable clearly thinks that Tory voters are beyond hope, but that the Yes campaign may be able to do a better job of mobilising Labour voters. Given that the Conservatives seem to command about 40% of the vote, and that many Labour activists and older voters are sceptical, this looks like a bit of a gamble. But how solid is his argument? Just because the Conservatives believe it doesn’t make it true after all.
The “progressive majority” is an old idea, hatched in the 1990s (if not before) when the Conservatives were last in power. It is founded on the observation that if you add Labour and Lib Dem votes together they pretty consistently get a 3:2 advantage over the Conservatives. Certainly, it is difficult to see that small-state Conservative policies (much lower taxes, much lower benefits abd public spending), beloved of the Tory right, will ever command majority support. There is an anti-right-wing-Tory majority. But to call this majority “progressive” is a stretch. Much of the opposition to such a right-wing agenda is conservative – something that characterises large parts of the Labour party (and dare I suggest some Lib Dems?). Remember Tony Blair railing against “conservatism” in his own party? It may be truer to suggest that there is an inbuilt conservative majority that opposes radical ideas, left or right.
Semantics, perhaps. Would AV permanently stop the Tories? It wouldn’t have stopped Mrs Thatcher. The SDP-Liberal Alliance would have picked up some more seats from the Conservatives, no doubt. But the Labour party of the time was so distrusted that they would not have picked up enough second preferences to take enough further seats off the Conservatives; they may even have lost one or two more seats to them. AV is good for a political party with momentum (which sways second as well as first preferences) – and Mrs Thatcher had that. She won because the Labour Party was strong enough to block the SDP-Liberal Alliance, but too weak to be a credible alternative to the Conservatives. This dynamic would have been almost as deadly under AV as it would under FPTP.
But the Labour Party is a much superior political machine now, that knows it has to win votes at the centre. For the Conservatives to beat them under FPTP and get a full majority they need other parties to undermine Labour, be they Lib Dems, Greens, or a future left-wing threat. Meanwhile they need to hang on to at least 40% or so of the vote themselves. This is a tall order if the Tory right was in the ascendant…but it would be more difficult for them to pull this off under AV, provided that the Labour Party made some attempt to attract middle ground voters. Strategically Vince is mainly right.
Tactically – by which I mean up to the next election – the picture is much less clear. As I have observed before, the Conservatives will be under attack from left and right simultaneously. UKIP are showing real resilience and are gradually earning the right to be seen as a proper political party (like the Greens, but unlike the chaotic BNP). The Lib Dems will want to make the best of their coalition nightmare with the voters by appealing to softer Tories. The more Mr Cameron tries to appease one group, the more he will put off the other. AV would make this situation much easier to manage. So far he is keeping this nightmare at bay quite successfully – but there’s a long way to go.
AV will help stop a radical party on either side of politics take exclusive power without genuine near-majority support. Mr Cable is right about that. But there is no progressive majority. And the effect of AV (or FPTP) on the next General Election is much too hard to call. The best reason for voting Yes is that AV is a fairer system that preserves the essence of the present one (single member constituencies; likely one party government). Voting Yes or No because it will be good for the party you support is the road to disappointment. For all three main parties.