It wasn’t quite rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, but the May 5th referendum on whether to change Britain’s voting system seemed, to many people, at best an irrelevance and at worst a cheat. A vote on electoral reform was the prize Liberal Democrat leader (and Former Nation Intern TM) Nick Clegg waved at his party when he signed his coalition pact with the Tories after last year’s election—a foothold, it was said, towards fairer votes and truer representation in parliament for the Lib Dems, who because of demographics and the UK’s winner-takes-all voting system have so far played the role of the perpetual bridesmaid. The proposed Alternative Vote (AV) system, which asks voters to rank candidates in order and takes second preferences into account until a winner emerges with more than 50%, wasn’t even the one most Liberal Democrats wanted: Clegg himself called it “a miserable little compromise.”
Held on the same day as elections for local councils and the Scottish and Welsh assemblies, the vote became instead a referendum on Clegg and his party, who crashed in spectacular flames, losing half their English council seats and scuppering electoral reform for many years to come. The Tories emerged from the wreckage startlingly unscathed. Ever since they broke their promise to scrap university tuition fees (voting instead for a Tory plan for a 300% increase) the Lib Dems have become the nation’s punching bag, taking the rap for Tory cuts just as Prime Minister David Cameron clearly hoped they would: the words “human shield” have been all over the airwaves, and not only with reference to the killing of bin Laden. Labour picked up most of the Lib Dems’s dropped seats in England but made no dent in the Tory vote—and suffered its own devastating defeat in Scotland.
Disgust with the government in Westminster led to a historic victory for the left-leaning Scottish National Party, whose leader Alex Salmond promised “the rocks would melt in the sun” before he made Scottish students pay tuition fees. Salmond’s party plans a referendum on full independence for Scotland before the end of the current Edinburgh parliament; if they win, and take Scotland out of the union, the Tories will have a huge majority in what’s left of Britain. A vote that was meant to lead to one kind of constitutional change—an electoral system that would, in theory, empower Britain’s left-of-centre majority—may instead produce another, which could shut the left out of Westminster for decades.
Why didn’t government spending cuts produce more of a backlash at the polls against their Tory architects? In politics, timing is everything. The school budget cuts, the withdrawal of housing support and legal aid and disability allowance, the closing down of day centres and libraries, the planned gutting of the National Health Service have barely begun to bite; this is the last moment when that will be true. What’s more, by agreeing to hold the AV referendum at the same time as local elections, Cameron allowed his party to launch an all-out attack on its coalition partners. The “No to AV” campaign, bankrolled almost entirely by Tories and Tory donors, used every sleazy trick at its compendious disposal, from suggesting that babies would die if voting reform went through to promoting Clegg—the coalition’s deputy prime minister–as the scapegoat for everything. “The AV means more coalitions and more broken promises,” proclaimed the Tory-funded posters. “Under AV the only vote that counts is Nick Clegg’s.”
The Labour Party also bears some of the blame. Endlessly worried about being seen as fiscally irresponsible, it has still failed to articulate an alternative plan for the economy. In depressing contrast to Cameron, whose personal intervention against AV was greeted with rage by his coalition partners and joy by his own back benchers, Labour leader (and Former Nation Intern TM) Ed Miliband couldn’t unite his party behind the AV campaign or make a convincing link with supposedly Labour values like participation and democracy. Labour has long been split on electoral reform, and on the whole question of working with the Liberal Democrats. Indeed, many of the New Labour dinosaurs whose emphatic lack of interest in forming a coalition last May helped push the Liberal Democrats into the arms of the Tories were outspoken in support of the “No” campaign. Some of them come from seats where the opposition is evenly split between Tories and Lib Dems, and benefit from the current system. Many more simply have a tribal hatred for the Liberal Democrats and anyone who isn’t Labour. With Clegg humiliated and his party in disarray, their argument goes, voters seeking an alternative to the Tory program will simply have to vote Labour, which will then return to office without any need to share power—or patronage—with any outsiders. Scotland has changed all that. Alex Salmond’s triumph shows that disaffected voters will, eventually, find another way. In Britain they’ll have to do it now under the old voting system, which shuts out smaller parties and let the Tories sneak into office despite being rejected by most of the voters through much of the last century.
The voting reforms so comprehensively rejected may not have been perfect, but they did offer a real chance to break the logjam of British politics. Even if all they achieved was a reduction in the number of safe seats—few MPs now ever face the prospect of real opposition—that would have been a gain for democracy. Instead the next election will be fought in even fewer constituencies, with the new boundaries drawn by the current government. This is a Tory moment if ever there was one: the ease with which Labour’s former prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, were left like wicked fairies off That Wedding list reflects the new confidence of the old ruling class, whose reunion party filled Britain’s TV screens last week. There may yet come a day when the voting system here produces results that reflect the views of the majority, who favor a well-funded, universal NHS, redistributive taxation and high quality public services. But it may not be in our lifetimes, or even in Charles and Camilla’s. Perhaps by the time William and Kate come to the throne…