03 May 2011

Why Nick Clegg WANTS to lose the AV referendum

With polls now pointing to either a fairly big or a very big win for No in Thursday's AV referendum, it's a huge pity that Nick Clegg didn't heed the Yes campaign's advice to seal himself inside a box for six weeks during the run-up to polling.

I'm not saying that everything would have been free and easy for the Yes people if Clegg had kept shtum. As explained in a recent post, their campaign has been largely crap. But continual speeches and media appearances on the Yes to AV theme from the UK's least popular frontline politician are, to borrow a vivid expression from US-based conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, a "turd in the punchbowl"... no-one is going to want to drink a fresh cup of AV after Clegg has just taken a dump in it.

Ed Miliband, to his credit, realised this, and has only appeared on stage with members of the Lib Dems who he believes have some public credibility left: e.g. Charles Kennedy, Shirley Williams, and more questionably, Vince Cable. But the Yes campaign have been powerless to stop Clegg from getting out there and pulling the vote down.

Which raises an interesting political question. Clegg must know that everytime he appears in public to endorse AV, the Yes vote takes another dive. And he's not obviously stupid. A liar and a closet Tory, yes, but not stupid. So why the hell is he out there for the Yes campaign?

It could just be vanity (not in short supply among several senior Lib Dems, to be sure). On the other hand, it could be that Clegg actually wants Yes to lose. On the face of it this would seem somewhat bizarre, but if you think about it some more, it starts to make sense:

  • Clegg described AV as a "miserable little compromise" last year when it was in the Labour 2010 manifesto. He showed no particular enthusiasm for the system at any point before the coalition negotiations. We can conclude, therefore, that he probably thinks it's a fairly poor system.
  • Although much of the research that has been done on AV suggests that it would increase the proportion of Lib Dem MPs (John Curtice at Strathclyde University, Nic Marks at the new economics foundation, the simulations run for the Jenkins Commission in the late 1990s) this is not a universally held view. Peter Kellner of YouGov, for instance, argues that the simulation research is flawed because it doesn't tell you how voters would modify their behaviour if the system changed - and if they did modify their behaviour, the Lib Dems could actually end up worse off. (the link to the Kellner piece is here - kind of: Prospect magazine haven't even managed to provide unique URLs for their election blog posts...) It could well be that Clegg and his advisers also believe that AV won't actually help the Lib Dems, so Clegg is actually deliberately damaging the campaign.
  • It's possible that if the Lib Dems lose AV then Dave Cameron may offer them additional concessions on other policies as a consolation prize - maybe an elected House of Lords, further changes on the NHS bill, etc. So the Lib Dems may get more of an influence on the direction of the govt by losing the AV vote. Conversely, if there is a Yes vote it would result in the Tory right being mightily pissed off and Cameron might well have to legislate for other things that the Lib Dems don't want - tax breaks for marriage, for example - to keep his right wing sweet.

So in short, the arguments for a Yes vote from the Lib Dems' (or at least Clegg's) point of view are far weaker than they seem. Another factor is that defeat on electoral reform is another way of Clegg distancing himself from the old liberal reformist tendencies of the Liberal Democrat rank and file. Clegg has already spent somewhat less time than his predecessors as Lib Dem leader extolling the virtues of electoral reform; it's taken a back seat to extreme right wing 'Orange Book' policies such as public sector privatisation (in the guise of "reform") and "fairer taxes" (meaning that we'll raise the income tax personal allowance while also increasing VAT so that poorer households pay more tax). This could be yet another part of Clegg saying to people he regards as middle class soft-left handwringers: This Is Not The Party For You. Bugger off to Labour or the Greens. We want the right wing libertarians.

The ConDem govt so far has been about as Orange Book in outlook as Clegg could have hoped for: although it has failed to do anything about any of the excesses of the Nu Labor police state (for example, see pre-emptive arrests of "protesters" before the Royal Wedding took place). But then, civil liberties tend to be one of those issues which the opposition gets excited about but then drops as soon as they get into govt. Like electoral reform. On economic policy, this is an Orange Book right-wing Lib-Con administration with hints of Sarkozy-esque populism thrown in (e.g. North sea oil tax grab), thanks to the opportunism of the Osborne/Alexander team. That's where Nick Clegg wants to be, with a transfer to a safe Tory seat at the end of his 5 years if the Fib Dems stay at rock-bottom in the polls. And it's why he's deliberately undermining the Yes vote - because why Rock The Boat when it's moving in the direction you want already?

No comments: