The decisive rejection of the Alternative Vote by more than two to one in a referendum will almost certainly close the chance of electoral reform for the House of Commons for a decade, and perhaps more.
So why was the referendum lost so heavily? What lessons should be drawn by those who wanted a different outcome?
There are, broadly, three broad possible categories of explanation for the Yes defeat, and I am going to contribute to the immediate inquest by examining these in a short series of Next Left blogposts.
One view – (‘ask a silly question’, or “the eternal verities of the status quo”) - will take this result as demonstrating conclusively not only that the British people didn’t want the Alternative Vote, but that they would never have wanted or voted for electoral reform in just about any circumstances. If this is true, then the lesson of the 2011 referendum Is very simple. Forget about electoral reform forever.
The second perspective – political context (perhaps especially “the Clegg factor”) – would suggest that campaigners for reform were handed a poisoned chalice by their champions in this government.
This would emphasise that it was extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible, to win an electoral reform referendum once the May 2010 Coalition was formed, once this required the third party to triumph in a public vote against their government partners by forming a countervailing alliance, in which the coalition’s opponents would be essential to a majority strategy. Combining the referendum with the May 2011 local elections exacerbated these difficulties. (A variation within this theme that the choices made by the Coalition’s refomers were fatal would be the theory that the LibDems made a mistake to hold an AV referendum, rather than to insist on one on PR, or to wait until that was possible).
If defeat in the referendum was always probable, this provokes a central question about political strategy in the Coalition negotiations. Why did the Liberal Democrat leadership miscalculate and believe that there was a good chance of the reformers winning, so making their central prize in the coalition negotiations something that was to prove not just a mirage, but the occasion of a damaging public humiliation?
The third view - campaign strategy, “was it Yes wot lost it?” – would argue instead that it was worth choosing to fight a referendum, because it was winnable, if it had been fought differently. This view depends not just on being able to anatomise what the Yes campaign, and its supporters across different parties, might have done differently, but also on providing a plausible account of how a referendum for fairer votes could have been won.
Two further posts will examine the idea that the Yes campaign could and should have done much better, and the counter-claim that the choices made by the LibDems to secure the referendum proved fatal to its chances of success.
The idea that electoral reform was bound to be lost because people will never want it lacks any credible evidence base, though it may well be popular with conservatives, who certainly have their tails up this weekend.
This idea will also get an important boost in broader political and public discourse from the (rare and historic) fact of a referendum lost. The particular pattern of the handful of places which voted Yes will be used to add colour to the idea that this was an obsession of an out-of-touch metropolitan elite.
So we will hear quite a lot this weekend about why electoral reform is dead – and it is certainly going to experience a long hangover.
Having put the question and lost, reformers do need to take the result seriously. Some of the instinctive reactions– “we wuz robbed by dirty tricks”, or “it would all have been different if it was PR” – are too simplistic, and could get in the way of a serious attempt to learn the lessons of defeat. (I am very sceptical that there is decent evidence that a campaign for PR could have been won in a referendum last week, though will be interested to see if anybody wants to make a serious attempt to make that case).
But there have been successful campaigns for political change in Britain – including winning referendums – for devolution in Scotland (very strongly) and in Wales (by a whisker, the first time) and for an elected Mayor and London assembly. Those new institutions which were succesfully established by popular consent, have used PR.
The Yes campaign perhaps rather more resembled the even more heavily defeated North-East regional assembly campaign, in never getting across convincingly an argument about the problem or the proposed solution.
We have established a new constitutional convention that major changes to the ‘rules of the game’ require a referendum. There are also now several comparative examples of successful and failed attempts to change electoral systems through referenda.
It is undoubtedly the case that electoral reformers significantly underestimated how difficult it would be to win the referendum, and the challenge of converting pluralities or majorities in opinion polls on low salience issues into winning a public vote.
One striking difference between the campaign for Scottish devolution and that for electoral reform in 2011 was the breadth of civic and political mobilisation after the 1992 General Election. The Yes campaign was trying to win a referendum on electoral reform at a time when the issue tended to be very much in the asterisk range (less than 1%) of voters views of the most important political issues.
If reformers want to return to seek another once in a generation chance in a decade or two, it would be of foundational importance to develop much stronger ‘theory of change’ and the necessary conditions to win the public argument for reform – both to learn how to choose the right battles, and to maximise the chances of winning them.
Our next AV inquest post will look at some of the key choices that the Yes campaign made on the road to defeat this time around.
So, where are the calls for first-past-the-post in Scotland?
The SNP have also now shown it is possible to occasionally win a slim overall majority under a PR system. Like me, you may have missed the objections from supporters of first-past-the-post that the SNP did not win more than 90 of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament. That is roughly what might have happened at Holyrood under first-past-the-post.
The SNP won 53 (72%) of the 73 constituency contests on their 45% of the vote, ending with 53% of the seats.
Now that Labour Is no longer axiomatically the biggest party in Scotland, will we hear British Tories argue that Labour and the SNP should cooperate to introduce first-past-the-post, so as to give Scottish voters a clear choice of government, avoiding the compromises and trade-offs of Coalition?
Though it would seem to contradict their public arguments, I suspect that David Cameron and his Westminster colleagues may well continue to support PR – in Scotland.