The Lib Con coalition has now published its proposed wording for the alternative vote referendum – ‘Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the “alternative vote” system instead of the current “first past the post” system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?’ – and we may all breathe a sigh of relief that it does not mention proportional representation.
Nick Clegg has so far handled the Lib Con constitutional reform programme about as competently as his first PMQs, where he caused a constitutional crisis of sorts by claiming to speak for himself rather than the government. (One wonders why Labour should bother taking part next time.) Faced with allegations of gerrymandering Clegg has already been forced to significantly amend his proposals for fixed term parliaments.
Thankfully the wording for the AV referendum is nice and simple, but many voters will surely wonder why they are not being offered some form of proportional representation. As discussed on LabourList before, AV is not PR. But it is a system thought likely to favour the Lib Dems while keeping smaller parties like the Greens and UKIP locked out of parliament.
The coalition government has so far cherry-picked half-hearted constitutional reforms that serve its narrow interests without regard to any long-term consequences; fixed-term parliaments that the coalition could curtail, the alternative vote but no PR, fewer MPs in Scotland, Wales and the cities (where Tories can’t win). Meanwhile they seem too busy to deal with the West Lothian question or reform the Lords.
In Scotland reform was hard won after years of negotiation in a constitutional convention to which all the parties and important figures from outside party politics were invited (even if some chose to stay outside).
The United Kingdom urgently needs to go through a similar process and the Lib Dems were in a unique position to bring that about. Instead Calamity Clegg’s programme has an air of the quick-fix about it, his reforms no more sustainable than the present coalition. He appears desperate to gerrymander our political system now for fear that this parliament will dissolve too soon and the Lib Dems will be sent back to backbenches for another 100 years.
If opponents of reform can effectively explain to the people that they are not being asked to endorse PR but a system that suits only the narrow interests of one party – a party 75% of them voted against last time – the Lib Dems might easily lose. They will then be finished.