On Monday I met with Robert Maclennan, the ex-SDP leader and former MP for Caithness & Sutherland. We discussed some of the challenges and opportunities facing the Liberal Democrats as coalition partners, in addition to exploring the possibilities for constitutional and electoral reform.
Of course, Lord Maclennan is more than well-versed in constitutional matters. In fact he's something of an expert in these things. What struck me though was the freshness and innovation of some of his ideas, parlicularly in regards parliamentary reform. What I found particularly surprising was that, in relation to the proposed AV referendum, he was optimistic that not only did this represent a real opportunity to put electoral reform back on the political agenda but also believed that it was more than winnable.
As anyone who knows me will appreciate, I'm not a big fan of AV. Like most Lib Dems, I'd prefer a genuinely proportional system such as STV. But there is little doubt that AV is a step in the right direction and is distictly preferable to the current system, which is hardly fit-for-purpose.
I also would have preferred almost any arrangement other than power-sharing with the Tories, although I accepted Nick Clegg's reasons for entering into a Cameron-led coalition. At the time, I strongly felt that Nick Clegg's acceptance of a referendum on AV (which, after all, was exactly what Labour had promised) was a lost opportunity. I thought the Lib Dem team should have held out for something better and made PR the sticking point in the negotiations, especially when it was revealed that Cameron would reserve the right to campaign against it. As far as I could see, Clegg had simply agreed to a referendum that the Conservatives would be determined we would lose, with the consequence of killing off the debate for the time being.
But in The Sunday Times, David Cameron revealed he would in fact not be involving himself in campaigning on the issue. Why not? Political editor Jonathan Oliver observed that, in spite of their natural reluctance to consider electoral reform, Tory ministers felt that AV would not necessarily work against their party "as long as the introduction of the alternative vote goes hand in hand with reform of constituency boundaries to equalise their size."
In spite of the inevitable opposition from Tory backbenchers, it is interesting to consider the possibility that senior Conservatives would rather keep the coalition united than defeat the AV referendum. AV does, after all, maintain the constituency link and would in all probability not make too much difference to Tory prospects. Oliver clearly is of the view that the matter is far more important to the Lib Dems' leaders than the Conservatives', and that the likely result of the AV vote being lost would be Lib Dem withdrawal from the coalition.
To me, that seems unlikely. Tuition fees increases are far more likely to derail the coalition than the democratic outcome of a referendum, however unpopular that outcome may be to party activists. But I also suspect there is doubt in the minds of many Tories who feel a YES majority in the referendum is possible. As Oliver speculates, "Cameron’s apparently relaxed approach to the referendum date and his decision to stand back from the fray will be seen by some Tories as a sign that he privately believes the battle to save first-past-the-post is lost."
I am sure this is where Bob Maclennan's optimism stems from. I don't think it's a case of needing to preserve the coalition, but a pragmatic stance from the Tory leadership. Why energetically campaign against a measure of electoral reform that will do one's party little damage and potentially alienate allies, especially when opinion polls suggest there exists a majority in favour of such change?
I'm also sure that Cameron remembers the lessons the Scottish Tories learned in the 1990s and, this time around, would not want to risk taking the wrong side against the prevailing wind of public opinion. If he campaigns strongly against AV and emerges on the losing side, what signals will that send out and what would be the cost to his personal credibility?