It was only seven weeks ago that Britain's Liberal Democrats agreed to join the Conservatives to allow them to form the country's first coalition government in 65 years and it's already payback time. The government's junior partners, cashing in one of the conditions of their joining the coalition, have forced Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron into conceding a national vote next year on changing the voting system for future general elections. The move will put the young coalition under immense strain and may even lead to its collapse.
On Friday, July 2, senior government sources stated that as early as next week the government would announce a referendum on how the British pick their leaders. The referendum, to be held in May 2011, would offer Britons a switch from the much criticized first-past-the-post or winner-takes-all system to an Alternative Vote (AV) method in which voters would list candidates in order of preference. The Lib Dems believe this would favor them at the expense of the bigger parties. In an inevitable consequence of the coalition deal, however, Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg will lead the Yes campaign, while Cameron will head the No team.
The policy was the bottom line for Clegg when he forged his deal with Cameron and the Conservatives back in May, a deal without which there would have been no coalition government. Cameron agreed, despite his opposition to a voting referendum and fears that his own party might not tolerate it. But those close to the Prime Minister say he had hoped he could persuade his deputy not to force the issue too early in the new five-year Parliament, in case it undermined the coalition. Cameron has had to give way and, worse, to agree to hold the referendum on the same day as elections for regional legislatures, in which it is widely expected that the government will be punished by voters for its recent hard-line, tax-raising reforms, branded by some commentators as the "bloodbath budget."
So far it has been the Lib Dems who have suffered most as a result of the ruling partnership. That's partly because Cameron was careful to give top finance jobs to members of Clegg's team, tying them inextricably to decisions to slash public spending and welfare and raise the value-added tax on goods policies the Liberal Democrats opposed during the election campaign. Another factor is the backlash from those Lib Dem voters who are traditionally against the Conservatives and who see the coalition deal as a sellout.
An opinion poll by ComRes for the Independent newspaper on June 29 showed the Liberal Democrats' support slumping 5% to 18% since the general election, while Conservative support has increased 4%. Clegg needed to push for the referendum in order to calm rising fears in his party about the effect the coalition was having on its popularity.
But should the referendum be lost next year as a result of supporter backlash and a powerful No campaign which could well see former ruling party Labour standing side by side with Conservatives many Lib Dems could wonder why they should continue, in effect, propping up a Conservative administration. The Liberal Democrats will have lost their historic, once-in-a-lifetime chance to change the voting system in their favor, and their leader will come under massive pressure to walk out on the coalition. That, in turn, could leave Cameron without a parliamentary majority and force him to call an immediate general election.
Should Britons vote to reform the electoral system, however and a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times on May 5 suggested 62% would favor a more proportional system Cameron could face serious criticism from his own MPs. The Conservatives always opposed the introduction of a new voting system, claiming it would lead to permanent read: "weak" coalitions. And it would forever change the face of British politics.
Virtually all other European countries use systems other than the first-past-the-post method Britain employs and few would argue that, say, Germany has had a string of weak governments. Critics of the reform, though, point to Italy and the 61 governments it has had since 1945 as an example of how proportional representation, in its various forms, can lead to instability.
In any case, the AV system being suggested wouldn't put Britain in line with the rest of Europe. AV isn't a truly proportional system, and it's not widely used by legislatures around the world the Australian House of Representatives is probably the highest-profile example of the use of AV. The U.K. is no stranger to different forms of voting, though. Elections for the Welsh Assembly and Scottish and European parliaments are all held under forms of proportional representation (although not straight AV) aimed at ensuring that those elected more closely reflect people's voted preferences.
Some worry that by asking voters to rank candidates in order of preference instead of choosing one outright, AV could hand victory to the person who comes in second. "Under AV, it can be said you often end up with the least objectionable candidate winning," says Ivor Gaber, professor of politician campaigning at London's City University. "The overall effect will be to flatten out election results, which will help the Liberal Democrats but decrease the Tory and Labour showing. It is likely you would end up with a continuation of the sort of coalition government we have now." But Gaber adds that AV does have its advantages. "You can argue it is a fairer system, and it could stimulate interest in voting if people believe their votes will count more," he says. "That will probably be a good thing for democracy in the U.K., which is at a pretty low ebb at the moment."
And now British democracy faces one of its greatest tests in recent years, with the gung ho Liberal Democrats and reluctant Conservatives setting an inescapable deadline that could very likely decide the future of the government.