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The AV referendum: a victory for Cameron

On 5 May, the same day as the local council elections the AV referendum will be held, that is the referendum on whether we should maintain our present first-past-the-post electoral system or change to the preferential voting system AV.

On paper, this seems a great victory for those disenchanted by the present system- a system encumbered with problems of proportionality. However, the case is more complex than that.

The problem is all centred around the date the referendum is set to be held. This date was chosen primarily out of fear that the voting turnout on another date would be too low for the referendum to have much legitimacy. But whether or not this is the only reason it was chosen is not simple. Legally speaking the referendum does not need to be held on that date, as the House of Lords pushed through a motion on December 6 2010 stating merely that the referendum need be held at a date before October 2011. The House of Lords is traditionally highly bipartisan, so discussion of amendments to bills within that house is in some ways more credible that discussions in the House of Commons; where there are clearer incentives to amending politically undesirable bills.

The date of the referendum has led to some undesirable consequences; at least from the perspective of the Yes campaign. First of all is the fact that no party political leader can really participate in the campaign publicly, for if they were to do so they would be staunchly criticised by their own party members; they should be focusing only upon their respective campaigns for the local elections. Secondly, there is the fact that Nick Clegg is probably the most hated politician in the country at the moment. These two points are highly relevant to deciding the outcome of the referendum.

Two points of note regarding the No campaign are, (1) the campaign has the support of a majority of the Labour old guard, and the entirety of the Conservative party. Also (2) that the No campaign is likely to be able to raise more campaign funds than the Yes campaign. When you consider that put together the both parties have a vast number of party loyalists, and this is shown by the tradition of staunchly Conservative and staunchly Labour constituencies; these are the constituencies which never change hands. The Electoral Commission ruled earlier that both campaigns would be able to raise a maximum of £6 million, whilst also being granted £600,000 in public funds. The Liberal Democrats, whom are committed to the Yes vote have as yet only been able to raise £3.7 million in private donations, whilst the Conservatives whom traditionally have a great support amongst the business class, are likely to meet the maximum limit [1].

With this these two considerations in mind, it is very significant that none of the three party leaders will be spending much time offering their opinions on the referendum. Both Miliband and Clegg are in favour of AV, whilst Cameron is against. However, Miliband’s party are split on this issue and Miliband has chosen not to silence the opposers within the party. As a consequence we are seeing increasingly more and more criticism of the AV system from within the Labour party.

Nick Cleggs’ popularity amongst the public cannot be discounted as being pivotal to the outcome of the referendum. Given that before the election the Lib Dem’s were being touted by many as being the alternative to Labour, after Labour’s turn to the right under Blair and Brown, many voters felt betrayed by the coalition. This sense of betrayal was drastically heightened by the tuition fees broken pledge furore. Before the election Clegg was the hero of the hour, but now he plays the villain all too well. This disaffection has inevitably impacted upon the party as a whole, with their approval ratings dropping to their lowest since the parties creation.

This disapproval will quite likely impact upon the Yes campaign, if it hasn’t already; for the pledge to hold the referendum was forged out of negotiations between the two coalition partners. The referendum was a concession to the Lib Dem’s and subsequently it is seen as a Lib Dem policy by the public at large. Indeed there is a strong presence of Lib Dem supporters within the Yes campaign. But there is also a large presence, possibly greater than those Lib Dem supporters, of progressive Labourites within the campaign, and this is something that may be missed by the public at large given the very vocal positioning of the Labour politicians opposing the Yes campaign.

The point of public support and lack of support for the Lib Dem’s taken together leads to a significant asymmetry is pulling power between the two campaigns- the No campaign has not only more money, but more credibility. To fight a campaign on more equal terms the Yes campaign needed to have vocal support from Miliband to take the pressure of the Lib Dems. To make up for this lack of support the campaign has resorted to cheap political stunts like using well known celebrity figures as campaign spokesman.

What is clear is that low turnout will benefit the No campaign, for the party loyalists are bound to vote in the referendum and the loyalists will vote for what they think is best for their respective party. Given that publicly both Conservative and Labour figures have come out against the campaign, the loyalists are unlikely to vote for a change. The Yes campaign is relying upon the vote of the younger generation who are always of a more liberal disposition, on electoral reform activists, and on the Liberal Democrat voters. The youth vote might be decisive in deciding the outcome, for they are truly the swing voters.

It is with this in mind that Clegg’s popularity becomes so integral to deciding the outcome. Clegg was most popular amongst the youth prior to the general election, but in breaking his pledge to oppose a rise in tuition fees, Clegg has almost certainly lost this group, or at least they will want to punish him for it. The image of the AV referendum as being a referendum on change becomes lost in the furore regarding Clegg, in its place it becomes a referendum on the coalition and more clearly on Nick Clegg.

This needn’t have been the case, if the date of the election were to have been changed. Changing the date would allow Miliband and Clegg to state their case publicly and there could be a series of public debates on the topic. Media attention is always going to be a deciding point in the referendum, and at the moment there are several competing stories, such as the local election and the royal wedding. This will inevitably impact upon voter turnout.

Yet, despite the ruling in the House of Lords, the date seems unlikely to be changed. The Prime Minister has firmly rejected any change of date, and the only way in which a change of date could take place is via the controversial use of delaying tactics within the House of Lords. The bill must be passed within the House of Commons by 16 May for the referendum to be held on 5 May. As a result the House of Lords has been experiencing a partisan divide recently, however it seems probably a resolution will be drawn that will allow the bill to be passed on time.

[1] Pickard, Jim., Barker, A. and Stacey, K, 2010. AV vote rules hit Lib Dem hopes. Financial Times Online [online] 9 August. Available at:
[accessed online on 11 February 2011]