Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Tick, tick, tick: voting reform is a time bomb
The Times - September 20th 2010

An aspect of politics that never fails to surprise us non-politicians is how often politicians lay time-bombs for themselves. We know a week is a long time, and tomorrow is another day, but some things do astound by being so foreseeable. The Cameron-Clegg coalition has laid the fuses of two big time-bombs, both of which will go off some time during the next nine months. Yet both could, in principle, be defused this month.

            It is at least symptomatic of this very co-operative coalition that David Cameron and Nick Clegg each have their own time-bomb. And no, neither is the spending review, the cuts, the threatened public-sector strikes and so on about which there is so much attention right now. That will no doubt take the good ship Cameron-Clegg through rough waters, but there is no obvious reason why it should throw either party overboard. The alternative of swimming to shore is not likely to look attractive enough, just yet.

            David Cameron’s time-bomb is not a coalition-buster, either, but it could easily do him a lot of damage nevertheless. It is Andy Coulson. Taking him on as director of communications was always a calculated risk, but the phone-hacking allegations, which are bound to be pursued energetically by every enemy that can, make the calculation increasingly unfavourable. The bomb is ticking, menacingly. As and when it goes off, it will destroy, perhaps irrevocably, Mr Cameron’s clean and straight-talking image.

            Yet it could be defused, easily, and even turned to the Prime Minister’s advantage. The way to do so is for Mr Coulson to resign, as soon as possible, protesting his innocence of course but saying he must go in order to avoid distracting attention from the serious business of government. At the same time, Mr Cameron can look dignified and even noble by announcing a thorough public investigation into whether phone hacking has been taking place all over the media, and whether the law and the police’s ability to enforce it are adequate.

            The other bomb, Nick Clegg’s improvised explosive device, is rather harder to defuse. It is the referendum he has announced for next May on electoral reform, or rather on a single type of reform, the alternative vote (AV) system.

            At the time the AV referendum was improvised, over that heady post-election weekend, it probably seemed a clever solution. The Liberal Democrats got what they have always wanted, and both the Lib Dems and the Tories could present the deal as superior—or at least equal to—Labour’s offer. But it wasn’t a clever solution, and that fact is going to come to haunt Mr Clegg as May comes closer. This bomb really does have the potential to blow up the coalition, and with it Mr Clegg’s whole career.

            Trees, buckets of ink and millions of bits and bytes have been devoted to the question of which new electoral system would achieve the best balance, or trade-off, between making elections more representative while keeping government stable and accountable. So you could conclude, as the Lib Dem and Tory leaderships seem to have done, that no more time needs to be wasted on study: we just need to vote yes or no. Yet if so, that would be to miss the biggest point of all: that no new system will be stable or considered legitimate unless the major parties accept it. And no new system is viable at all if the main proponents of change, the Lib Dems, are themselves lukewarm about it.

            That, however, is exactly the situation Mr Clegg has created for himself. He has demanded a referendum, and then gone ahead and organised it, because change must be seen to be on its way. Yet, as has widely been commented upon, the AV system, under which voters rank candidates and then the least successful candidates’ votes are redistributed until one candidate tops 50%, is not the Lib Dems’ own preference: that is the Irish “single transferable vote” system, under which constituencies have more than one member of Parliament, and ranked votes are again distributed from unsuccessful candidates as well as excess votes from any who beat the required threshold and so have already been elected.

            It is all very technical, which is never good for a referendum. The principle is now well established, however, that constitutional changes require approval by a referendum. But in that case, it had better be a well prepared referendum. That is the time-bomb. It really can’t be, when even the Lib Dems are going to be half-hearted, at best, about AV and will be reminded constantly by opponents of change that they used to deride that very system. Labour’s approach will only really become clear once it has a leader, but it will be distinctly odd to ally with it, and so against many of the members of your own coalition partner.

Whatever the result, the coalition will be damaged, quite possibly destroyed: a defeat will be disastrous for Mr Clegg, especially amid griping over spending cuts, for it raises the question of what is the point of his party, and certainly its future. A victory would not be much better, for many Tories will instantly start to plot ways of blocking the legislation, and Lib Dems will be wondering whether they have really got anything better than the old system.

For the first four months of more-or-less happy coalition government, the referendum next May has seemed unimportant, a sensible price to pay for a swift and clean deal—one that made Britain the envy of all coalition-builders across Europe. As May creeps ever closer, as opinion polls provide more serious indications of the likely result, and as the government anyway passes through those rough waters of spending cuts, that price is likely to look less and less sensible.

The time-bomb could be defused if Mr Clegg were to act now. Emerging later this week from his party conference, he could too could put on a dignified and noble air. He could announce that he has sensed the uncertainty and unhappiness in his party about this core issue of electoral reform, and at the prospects of fighting a referendum in these circumstances. More time for reflection is required: a cross-party commission, including senior figures, would now be formed to debate the issue and to come up with an agreed proposal, for a referendum some time in 2012. Ticking would still be heard. But the explosion, if it ever happens, would do less damage to life, limb and Lib Dem leaders.



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