I was going to call this “Putting the Liberal in Libservative”, but after the deeply regressive budget the coalition have put forward, that seemed a little too oxymoronic.
So this weekend, the coalition has announced the date for their AV referendum. 5th May 2011. It’s a big moment, because it’s the only meaningful concession that the Lib Dems got out of the Tories. It’s not what they wanted, but it’s not what the Tories wanted either. Everyone knows that the Lib Dems will campaign for AV, and the Tories will campaign against it, and really that facet of the issue isn’t that interesting.
The importance of this announcement is that it’s Nick Clegg’s attempt to justify himself to his party and voters, after the travesty of the VAT hike he campaigned against, and then fell in line behind. Compromise is one thing, but VAT was the weapon of choice that the Lib Dems attacked the Tories with during the election. To support it now is not simply compromise, but a betrayal of principles, and the voters who listened and agreed to what they had said.
But the Lib Dem frontbench hopes that this announcement will be a reminder that yes, they did get something out of the deal. They might have sold their souls, but at least they didn’t sell them for completely nothing. Right? Well, it’s still a very small concession. The Tories’ line is clear; they like first past the post. They’ll throw their full weight behind it, including the Ashcroft/Murdoch machine (and I don’t believe that DC will remain neutral in the campaign). The Lib Dem’s line on it, however, isn’t exactly harmonious. They want a much more radical electoral reform, and this is just a tiny step in the direction they want to go.
I’m in favour of AV. I’m actually in favour of Single Transferable Vote, but that’s so complicated as to probably be impractical for the population to understand, without a few generations of quality political education in schools (another thing that I’m fairly passionate about the need for). But I don’t know whether it will pass or not.
And on top of that, this could be a serious problem for the Labour Party. Whilst the Tories and the Lib Dems have their clear places on either side of the electoral reform line, Labour is bisected by it. Some want reform, some want to keep first past the post, which will make the whole issue vary precarious. It runs the risk of dividing the party on the campaign, particularly as the inclusion of the boundary changes the Tories want to make to keep Labour out in the future will be bound up in it. Even those who like the idea of AV are relucatant to support a measure which will also gerrymander the constitution.
In my opinion, this is one of those now issues. Labour needs to debate openly and intensely their stance on the referendum, and make a collective decision where the party stands. And it needs to stick by that position, every man, woman and child. Because this might be the godsend Clegg is looking for. It might tear the only opposition apart, and allow him to get away with his betrayal of progressive politics. This is not a time for party squabbles, and the leadership contest so far has been conducted with such dignity and civility, it would be a real shame to lose that unity now.
(And on an entirely unrelated note, don’t forget my Werewolf Anthology Competition! Only a week left, and still no entries. Come on people, I’ve got a copy of the anthology here, and I want to give it to someone for free!)