Referendum may weaken British coalition

April 10, 2011 - 0:0

LONDON (Reuters) -- Britons vote next month in a referendum on changing the electoral system which looks certain to undermine either Prime Minister David Cameron or his deputy Nick Clegg, and could weaken their coalition.

The poll on a switch to the Alternative Vote (AV) system has failed to catch the imagination of Britons troubled by rising prices and spending cuts. A string of public holidays and a royal wedding provide another, more welcome, distraction.
However, the May 5 referendum, and local elections on the same “Super Thursday”, will shape political debate over the summer and could weaken a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition which came to power in May 2010.
The accepted political wisdom is that the coalition partners, embarking on a drastic cost-cutting program, will stick together for a full five-year term until 2015 because they would be punished at the polls in any early election.
But some commentators say that is a dangerous assumption and that strains will only grow over time.
Lib Dem supporters are already alarmed by a slump in support for the smaller coalition party and have spoken up against government policies on issues like reform of the state-funded National Health Service.
Cameron faces a backlash
Conservative leader Cameron faces a backlash from his restive right-wing if the switch to AV goes through.
“If Cameron loses this gamble, he really is stuck with a system that could make it harder for the Conservatives to govern alone again,” said Tim Bale, politics professor at the University of Sussex in southern England.
“For Clegg, if he doesn’t get it, people will begin to wonder what they are getting out of government,” added Bale.
Cameron and Clegg, close partners in government since last May, are on opposite sides of the AV argument.
Cameron’s Conservatives are campaigning to keep the status quo in the form of the first-past-the-post system while Clegg’s Liberal Democrats back a move to AV which helps smaller parties.
Ed Miliband, leader of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party, backs the switch to AV but the party is divided on the issue, with a number of heavyweights opposing the change.
The issue is seen as win-win for new leader Miliband - he either ends up on the side of the victors or failing that can hope to lure disgruntled Lib Dem supporters into Labour ranks.
The referendum, a rarity in British politics, is a by-product of the coalition agreement struck last year between the center-right Conservatives and the left-leaning Lib Dems.
The Conservatives have seized on Clegg’s previous dismissal of AV as a “miserable little compromise” and pointed out that it is used for parliamentary elections only in Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
However, AV would be a staging post for the Lib Dems and allow them to push for a generally proportional system.
Clegg, whose personal popularity has nosedived since he took office, arguably has most to lose in the referendum as defeat would kill off electoral reform for at least a generation.
“Losing matters more to Nick Clegg than David Cameron. For the Lib Dems it was a crucial issue, without the promise of a referendum, the coalition would not have happened,” said John Curtice of the University of Strathcylde in Scotland.
“For Cameron, the right will be unhappy but Cameron will say to them it’s better to be in power than not,” he added.
A switch to AV would encourage the Conservative party’s anti-European right to become more vocal, mindful of the need under the new system to court supporters of the UK Independence Party, a fringe party opposed to the EU.
The right wing is already unhappy because it feels Cameron is taking the party too close to the political centre and wants a tougher line on issues like crime and immigration.
A study suggests that the Lib Dems would have picked up 89 seats in the 2010 election had it been fought under AV, 32 more than they actually won. They would have gained seats at the expense of both the Conservatives and opposition Labour and could have formed a coalition with either party.
Commentators are reluctant to call the outcome of the referendum, with turnout likely to be dismally low in areas like London where there are no local polls on that day.
Participation should be higher in other areas because of local elections and voting for the Scottish parliament and Northern Ireland and Welsh assemblies.
Britain’s last national referendum was in 1975 when its citizens opted to stay in the European Community. Electoral reform is failing to set the pulse racing this sunny spring.
“Public understanding of the difference between first-past-the-post and AV is so limited, it’s hard to get people to vote, “said Ruth Fox of the Hansard Society, a political research group.