Will Nick Clegg and all his works (including the alternative vote) provide the lightning conductor for the nation’s wrath on 5 May?
The boyish leader of the Liberal Democrats and his party seem to have attracted a disproportionate amount of flak compared to the boys from the Bullingdon Club who greatly outnumber them in this coalition.
We will hardly have recovered from toasting William and Kate’s happiness before we are offered not one but two opportunities to wreak revenge on poor old Nick for doing his deal with the Conservatives.
5 May will see the biggest round of local elections in England in the four-year cycle of town hall polls. People in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be electing all the members to their parliament and assemblies. And, of course, there is the alternative vote referendum – one of Nick Clegg’s deal breakers when forming the Coalition 12 months earlier.
It would be unfortunate if people’s decisions on voting reform were clouded by a desire to protest at Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. This is the first time we have considered reforming the way we elect our MPs and we should vote on the merits of the issue.
One mustn’t overdo the historic nature of the alternative vote referendum. The reform is not the Holy Grail that Liberals have been seeking since Jeremy Thorpe was their “colourful” leader. The third party really wants the single transferable vote (STV) and, if you look at the statistics, you’ll understand why.
If the last election had taken place under STV the Conservatives would have got 246 seats, Labour 207 and the Lib Dems a hunky 162. With AV the figures are Conservatives 281, Labour 262 and the Lib Dems 79, not vastly different from the actual General Election result last year.
Of course, these statistics are only a guide because a new voting system might make people vote differently.
The “NotoAV” [sic] campaign claims the system is too complicated. Do me a favour! If you want to, under AV you can just put a one by your favoured candidate and stow your stubby pencil away. Or you can vote 2, 3, 4 etc to give expression to your order of preference for other candidates.
If nobody gets 50 per cent, the second preference votes of the eliminated bottom candidate are given to the remaining candidates and so on until someone gets 50 per cent.
Supporters of AV concede that when 97 per cent of people voted either Conservative or Labour in 1951, first past the post worked. The growth of “other” parties meant that only 65 per cent voted Labour or Conservative last May but those two parties still got by far the most seats.
The AV campaign says there are too many safe seats where the outcome is virtually certain before a vote is cast. One surveysuggests that just 1.6 per cent of the electorate in the 111 constituencies that changed hands at the last election actually decided the government of this country.
NotoAV says the change would be a charter for losers where candidates who start off in second or third place could come through on the rails. They say it is a politician’s fix because it will result in more hung parliaments with backstage deals usually involving the Lib Dems.
Turning to the local elections, Labour looks like getting its best result since the mid-1990s when the Conservatives faced meltdown as John Major’s Government became mired in sleaze and rebellions on Europe.
In government Labour saw its town hall base eroded but now it is set to ride a wave of anger at the savage cuts being imposed across the country, and particularly in the North. Places like Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield, Bolton and Oldham could fall to Labour. Lib Dem and Tory-run shire district councils that elect all their councillors every four years will also be potentially vulnerable.
The local government secretary Eric Pickles is claiming that councils like Manchester and Liverpool are making cuts in frontline services deliberately to up the ante with the Government. It’s a charge that’s unlikely to work with voters.
This is a dark hour for Coalition members who are hoping a dawn of growth is just over the horizon.