Trouble is brewing over the decision to hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote for the Commons on May 5 2011 , the same day as elections for the Scottish parliament and the NI and Welsh Assemblies, and council elections in England and NI. Despite the agreed coalition split over AV, the referendum may well become a public opinion poll on the coalition as a whole as the spending cuts bite. The devolved administrations fear getting dragged down with it. Alternatively if support for the coalition holds up under difficult circumstances, this may boost the Lib Dems in S and W and even give the Cons a foothold in S . Beyond the political calculations, the fear that anything beyond marking X on one ballot paper is all too much for the tiny minds of voters is patronising and silly – as anyone who has experience of PR knows.
Some English MPs opposed to voting change object because the turnout in S, W and NI where new governments are being elected is likely to be higher than in E, because no one anywhere apart from nerds gives a damn about AV as such. If Nick Clegg had wanted to boost English turnout he should have folded into the referendum the popular proposal to cut the number of MPs. While guaranteeing Labour opposition, that may happen anyway for nakedly partisan reasons. By the way the NI parties should be relieved that the total number of MPs is to be cut by only 50, with NI standing to lose just one seat.
The rows over AV referendum is the latest evidence that the coalition is redefining British politics in ways that are as yet far from clear. The egregious Prezza calls the AV package with 50 fewer seats the biggest gerrymander ( against Labour) in 40 years. Max Hastings voices Tory fears that AV would keep them out of power for a generation. Both these opinions are preposterous. The parties are internally divided. AV was choice of Labour only and they made it at the last minute before the election. The Conservatives are opposed to any change and the Lib Dems really want full PR.
But the argument that some change is better than none is gaining ground. Steve Richards in the Indy comes nearest to reality by arguing that it’s the coalition programme as a whole, not the political reforms that is redefining British politics. The coalition leadership will take care not to stake their whole future on the referendum result. Cameron will speak against AV but softly. And listen out for Tory whispers to get louder, that AV could give them their best chance of a second coalition term.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London