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British political marriage in trouble

By Stephen Minas - posted Monday, 16 May 2011

'Even in these very difficult circumstances… close to one in seven people still voted for us.'

This is what now passes for good news for Britain's deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg. Trounced in last Thursday's local elections and with a referendum bid to change Britain's voting system decisively shot down, Clegg's Liberal Democrats – the junior partner in Britain's year-old coalition government – are in crisis.

The referendum was the major concession made by Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party to secure Lib Dem support in a coalition, after last May's elections resulted in a hung parliament. The Tories opposed the change, the Lib Dems were for it and the Labour opposition was split. Had the referendum passed, Britain would be replacing its first-past-the-post voting system with the 'alternative vote', a preferential system similar to Australia's.


This was hardly a topic designed to enthuse people with little interest in politics. Even in a slow news week, the Yes campaign would have struggled. And it's hardly been a slow news week.

The Friday before the vote, after months of saturation media coverage, Prince William and Kate Middleton tied the knot. Three days later, Britain woke to news that American forces had killed Osama bin Laden and buried him at sea. Public attention switched seamlessly from royal wedding to terrorist funeral. And many people only returned from long holidays made possible by the royal wedding two days before the vote.

So apart from some passionate supporters on either side (Eddie Izzard, for one), interest was mostly confined to the political classes. With pictures of a grinning Clegg and his unfortunate description of the alternative vote as 'a miserable little compromise', the No campaign made the unpopular Lib Dem leader the public face of the reform push to devastating effect.

In portraying the alternative vote as complicated, undemocratic and an insider stitch-up, the No campaign seemed to be channeling the monarchists from Australia's 1999 republic referendum, with their central message of 'Vote No to the politicians' republic'.

Indeed, Australia played a walk-on role in the No campaign, bracketed with Fiji and Papua New Guinea as the 'only three countries in the world' to use the alternative vote. Voting reform was rejected by a margin of 67.9 percent to 32.1.

The ABC's Antony Green even appeared on the BBC to administer the last rites. 'If you don't know, vote No', Green explained, has long been a winning pitch for No campaigns in Australian referenda. In this case, 'If you don't care, vote No' captures the result equally well.


The other venture Clegg fronted, the Liberal Democrats, fared equally badly. The junior coalition partner lost more than a third of its local councilors who stood for reelection.

With the electoral reform cheque having resoundingly bounced, Lib Dems are increasingly questioning the value of the coalition and the character of their partners, the Tories.

Vince Cable, the Lib Dem business secretary, declared the Tories to be a 'ruthless, calculating and thoroughly tribal' bunch. It was difficult to see what purpose this outburst served, other than to reinforce the stereotype of the Lib Dems as the silly, unserious party that would rather like the others to play nice.

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About the Author

Stephen Minas is a journalist and a research associate with the Foreign Policy Centre, London. Twitter @StephenMinas

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