The secret AV escape clause
When somebody involved in either the Yes or No camp says, “I have an interesting fact about the Alternative Vote”, you can usually guarantee that it’s neither a fact nor interesting. On this occasion, however, I’d be grateful if you set aside your scepticism, look into my crystal ball, and contemplate the political landscape at the end of 2013.
By then, two significant political events will have happened: the referendum on AV and the review of constituency boundaries. Both measures were enacted by the same legislation. And as the recent Electoral Commission’s new booklet on the referendum helpfully explains, their fates are intertwined:
“The ‘alternative vote’ system will be used after a review of the boundaries of the area that each MP represents (known as their constituency) is completed. This is due to happen between 2011 and 2013. The review will happen regardless of the outcome of this referendum.
“At the end of the review, the UK Parliament will vote on implementing the new boundaries. If the new boundaries are implemented, the ‘alternative vote’ system will be used for all future elections to the House of Commons.”
So AV can only come into force, even after a YES vote in the referendum, if MPs and peers vote in favour of the new electoral map, when it is presented to Parliament in October 2013.
That will be an interesting vote.
Imagine that AV has been backed by a narrow majority in the referendum, on a very low turnout. For many Tories, especially David Cameron, that’s a nightmare scenario. In those circumstances, would he be able to convince his own side to trigger the implementation of AV by voting through new boundaries?
Don’t forget, the Tories aren’t expected to get off scot-free when the Commission presents the new constituency map; at least thirteen Conservatives look set to lose their seats, and many more will be expected to campaign within vastly changed boundaries with no guarantee of success, especially under AV.
Come 2013, the price that Tory backbenchers are being asked to pay in order to keep Nick Clegg in Ministerial cars might begin to look a tad high. They would have the power to stop the introduction of AV by voting down the implementation of the new boundaries, if they joined forces with Labour. That would surely be a coalition breaker, but it’s not inconceivable. A lot of water will have flowed under Westminster Bridge by the end of 2013, and who knows how willing the Tory backbenches will be to toe the whips’ line.
Now look into a different crystal and imagine a “NO” vote in the referendum. That could conjure up a mirror image of the YES vote scenario. The defeat of AV would be a massive blow to the Liberal Democrats in more ways than one. They face an uphill struggle at the next election whatever happens.
But fighting it with FPTP and on a new electoral map would undoubtedly precipitate a disastrous result for the Liberal Democrats. By the end of 2013, their MPs will know what the new map will look like, and it won’t depict the sunlit uplands of Lib Demmery In Perpetuity. Would their backbenchers walk through the lobbies with Labour in order to safeguard their seats, even if this stretched the coalition to breaking point?
Whichever way the referendum vote goes on 5th May, Lib Dem and Tory party managers hold a ticking constitutional timebomb in their hands.