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Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Was it Nick Clegg's fault?

I am not going to attempt to answer that question myself but according to this report in today's Telegraph, at least one internal party report Nick Clegg's decision to call a referendum on the voting system on the same day as local elections backfired disastrously.

They say that a report to the party's annual conference in Birmingham later this month concludes that the council elections turned into a "perfect storm" because the referendum on the alternative vote (AV) also took place on 5 May:

Although David Cameron wanted to delay the AV vote until this autumn, Mr Clegg insisted it was held in May in the hope that elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English councils would boost the turnout – and the prospects of a Yes vote. In the event, AV was rejected by 68 to 32 per cent and the Liberal Democrats lost 700 town hall seats. With hindsight, the report concludes, the double poll meant that Liberal Democrat activists were unable to give enough time to the "Yes to AV" effort. It also prevented the seconding of staff to the referendum campaign, took media airtime away from the elections and allowed Labour supporters to "kick the party twice".

The report says: "Turnout among Conservative and socially-conservative Labour voters was at general election levels, driven out in consequence of the AV referendum. A huge trade union campaign in Labour-leaning areas targeted the party leader [Mr Clegg] personally and viciously."

A simultaneous AV referendum also meant that Mr Clegg's party got little or no credit from Tory supporters. "Conservative voters satisfied with the Coalition were reluctant to vote tactically for their coalition partners in Lib Dem/Labour marginals, in no small part because of the vociferous rivalry between the two parties in the national referendum," the report says.

I cannot say that I really engaged with the AV campaign, in many respects it was the wrong cause at the wrong time. I delivered leaflets for it and incorporated it in my own election literature but really I was too focussed on surviving the Assembly election to do much more. In that respect the report is right.

What is important is that the party has started to recover in the polls and Nick Clegg himself is much more assertive within the coalition, possibly because of that AV defeat. What is also clear is that those purists who opposed AV because it was not proportional enough have got what they deserved.

There is virtually no chance of having a second go at reform for decades to come in my view. That is sad, but it must also be a lesson learned for those who refuse to be realistic about what is achieveable in government.
And I don't think that the Murdoch run Sun being anti AV helped either.
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