The AV Referendum in Retrospect – The Failure of Nick Clegg?

For the supporters of the alternate voting system, the results of Thursday’s referendum can’t but seem like some horrendous nightmare; made all the more unbelievable by the speed of the collapse in public support for the voting system in the 4 months preceding the big day. According to opinion polls, public support dropped from at least a comfortable 10 point Yes vote lead (depending on source) and a sizable percentage of people undecided to 32% Yes and 68% No; a drop of at least 47 points from the Yes campaign’s initial lead. There were many factors that contributed to its defeat; from the visibly ‘Conservative led’ No Campaign attacks on AV and the party it’s most associated with – which have been described by energy secretary Chris Hune as ‘fallacious’ – to the split in labour and even the timing of the referendum within a wider political context. However, much of the blame has been placed squarely on Nick Clegg himself, especially from his detractors within the disenfranchised Liberal Democrat camp. The result that they see as so abhorrent was attributed to Nick Clegg and his mismanagement of the Coalition as well as his failure to properly understand the realities of the political picture. Many of these groups also see the current fortunes of the party in the same light.

For them, the Liberal Democrats were unfortunately locked into a position that they ultimately perceived as catastrophically damaging the party and destroying the chance of electoral reform any time soon. This was as a result of the political realities of the 2010 election and Liberal Democrat ideology. As the main proponents of Proportional Representation, a system that necessitates coalition governments, Nick Clegg decided the only way to make coalitions look good and to come out of the Coalition stronger as a party – a party now with experience at governing – was to fully embrace coalition policy as its own. Falling completely behind coalition governance and gambling on the hope that the economic forecasts were accurate for the time of the next general election (the economy having been predicted to grow beyond pre‘credit-crunch’ levels). With this, employment and living standards would be up and there would be economic wiggling room to try and revitalise the health service and welfare systems; coalition government may be seen as a success. Regardless of the results on May 5th, this may all still prove true. If Clegg has gambled well, this success could reflect well on him and his party as they go their own way at the end of the coalition. Initially some (including perhaps even Clegg) may have hoped in those happy opening months of the coalition to move closer their new Conservative friends in that happy romance there seemed to be between Clegg and Cameron. There was even some rash talk of perhaps an electoral alliance; all this of a man who, on the 8th of March 2008, stated at the Liberal Democrat conference, that he would never join a Conservative government.

To some of his detractors, this embracing of the coalition policies led towards Clegg appearing as a ‘submissive lapdog’ to Cameron and his Conservative majority. Many Liberal Democrat voters broadly fell on the left of the British political spectrum and were anti-Conservative, but had turned away from Labour. They had come in their droves during the gloomy days of Blair and his war, or again from Brown, the recession and his abortive electoral fudge and saw the pact with the Conservatives as the party selling out. They were angry that the left, which Clegg and his party had seemed to represent during the 2010 election, was not their actual position in practice. These voters would have preferred at worst for the Liberal Democrats to appear as aloof reluctant partners in the coalition, a separate party sacrificing some independence to make government work in the national interest. This, of course, would have seemed counterproductive to the party’s ideological needs to warm the public to coalitions. At best they would have wanted a progressive coalition of the left with Labour. The tribe mentality of many Labour back benchers prevented this – a mentality seen at work again against Ed Miliband in the same kinds of people refusing to support the Labour leadership’s position on AV.

Thus, unfortunately for Nick Clegg and his party, they were associated with the harshness of coalition’s austerity policy; in particular the breaking of Clegg’s pledge and the raising of tuition fees. Those with a longer political memory would not be surprised by Nick Clegg’s apparent u-turn over tuition fees, recalling how when he fought for the Liberal Democrat leadership he had stood against the party’s official position on fees, believing it to be unsustainable. What they may have been surprised by was Clegg’s apparent stupidity in signing a pledge that was against his own views and a pledge that he must have known he was likely to drop if needed. Clegg, appearing to be a man of his principles, but not a man of his word; willing to break his promises as his Conservative colleagues have been so eager to point out, in order to further those principles. The No Campaign very effectively capitalised on this association.

After it experienced an almost aggressive take over by the Conservative party, at the beginning of 2011, the No Campaign took a different line. This Conservative party quickly asserted its agendum on the supposedly bipartisan campaign group. Cameron and the Conservative leadership had been told frankly by the party that the change to AV was not acceptable. The short term political alliance with the Liberal Democrats was in no uncertain terms worth the price of a constitutional change that might prevent the party from achieving a majority ever again (though the threat of AV to the Conservatives is still unclear). This caused the changes in the No Campaign that has resulted in the souring of coalition relations. David Cameron, going against his earlier understanding with Nick Clegg in the coalition agreement, became actively and visibly involved in the No Campaign. He then allowed the No Campaign to change from the niceties of political science to personal attacks against his deputy and the Liberal Democrat party in general. The No Campaign very effectively managed to link the referendum to coalitions and the Liberal Democrats, turning it almost into a referendum on Nick Clegg instead of AV – connecting the public’s current disaffection with Clegg and the Coalition to AV.

The timing of the referendum did not help the Yes camp in this regard. Deputy leader of the Labour party, Harriet Harper lamented that “the referendum should have been held separate to the council election” so instead of being blurred into a party vote it could have been portrayed as it actually was. This would have allowed more time for “cross party cooperation and campaigning”. Harper, like her leader Ed Milliband, was a keen proponent of AV; she expressed her regret that she was unable to campaign in favour of AV because of this. As a Liberal Democrat councillor in Portsmouth said “they didn’t care about AV in Portsmouth today, they cared about their jobs, health service and schools”. In general the people didn’t care about AV. In areas where there were no council elections, the turnout for the referendum was as low as 35%. The date of the referendum meant a lot of voters connected it with the party vote of council elections, and in a lot of cases a Yes vote was seen as a Liberal Democrat vote. It was Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrat leadership that had insisted on holding the referendum on the 5th of May. Nick Clegg’s mismanagement of the coalition has not only damaged his party, but perhaps also ruined a generation’s chances for electoral reform.