Here in the United Kingdom the nation is waking up on Thursday May 5th, the day of the alternate vote (AV) referendum and some would say, judgment day for the political career of the Liberal Democrat Deputy PM Nick Clegg. The referendum was arguably the most politically important concession extracted by the Lib Dems from David Cameron’s Conservatives as part of their coalition agreement. Victory for “Yes” case proponents will deliver meaningful and overdue electoral reform, together with a substantive apologia to the British people for the oft craven capitulation of the Lib Dems to the Tory policy agenda. Victory for “No” case proponents will leave many Liberal Democrat supporters baffled as to just how their party has profited from their “deal with the devil”, and progressives more pessimistic than ever about serious democratic reform in the United Kingdom.
Recent polling strongly suggests that the latter scenario will come to pass, with likely serious implications for the health of the coalition agreement and Nick Clegg’s already comatose leadership. The “No” campaign has been heavily backed politically by the Conservative Party and financially by regular Tory donors, and the Labour Party is offering only partial support. The Labour leadership under Ed Miliband supports the “Yes” case, but many influential “Old Labour” figures have sided with the Tories and are urging a “No” vote. In short, the lack of broad, bi-partisan support for change which arguably killed off the majority of referenda put to the Australian people since Federation looks set to do the same for the alternative vote in the United Kingdom today.
For me, the AV campaign was summed up by a single image yesterday. The Conservative Party’s headquarters is located at Millbank Tower at 30 Millbank, a short, languorous stroll south from the House of Parliament in Westminster. Walking past it on my way home from work yesterday, I was a little surprised to observe outside a bright purple open-top double-decker bus, emblazoned with “No 2 AV” slogans. The open top of the bus was filled with a rabble of young Tories (presumably supplied by party HQ), waving signs emblazoned with checked boxes in support of FPTP, and making a cacophonous and indistinct noise. The bus proceeded to drive slowly up Millbank towards the Houses of Parliament, as the Tories onboard desperately tried to attract attention, cheering when the occasional passing motorist sounded their horn, whether in support or opposition.
Passers-by seemed to be scratching their heads. It was a classic case of sound and fury signifying nothing, wholly representative of the sort of meaningless froth and colour that looks set to seal victory for the “No” campaign, which lest we forget, has been orchestrated from go to whoa by the Conservative Party.