Consequences of an AV failure for the coalition and Lords reform

Press Release

The Constitution Unit has issued warnings for the past year that the AV referendum was likely to be lost. The government allowed far too little time for public information and debate on a subject which generates little interest or enthusiasm. Recent referendums on electoral reform in Canada were also defeated, but the UK government learned nothing from those defeats.

Director of the Constitution Unit Prof Robert Hazell said: “Research has long shown that the public know little about electoral systems, and care even less. It was always going to be difficult to get people interested in electoral reform. This was made worse by the government’s rushed timetable; and by the choice of AV, which is little different from first-past-the-post”.

Prof Hazell added: “A further difficulty resulted from the government’s decision to hold a referendum on the same day as elections. The political parties understandably made the elections their first priority. The public were left ignorant and confused. This was not helped by the mud slinging and exaggerated claims from both the Yes and No campaigns. It is no surprise that when voters feel confused, they either abstain or cling to what they know”.

Impact on the coalition

The coalition will survive the referendum defeat. But the result is inevitably a setback for Nick Clegg. He cannot blame the Conservatives: they wisely left him in charge of the referendum bill, and the timing of the referendum. To keep the Liberal Democrats happy the Conservative leadership will now be pressed to offer strong support for his next big constitutional reform, an elected House of Lords.

Prospects for Lords reform

But the Conservatives cannot necessarily deliver support for an elected second chamber in either the Commons or the Lords. Any package will contain numerous controversial details, from the electoral system, to the bishops, to the powers of the second chamber and the threat to Commons’ primacy.

Dr Meg Russell, the Unit’s deputy director and expert on the House of Lords, said “Nick Clegg may press David Cameron to give him Lords reform as a consolation prize, but this is not in Cameron’s gift to give. There will be strong resistance to the government’s proposals in the Commons, as well as in the Lords. Many Conservatives in both chambers oppose this reform, while support from Labour is unlikely. Rejection of electoral reform by the people may be a blow to Clegg, but a parliamentary ‘death by a thousand cuts’ for his Lords reform proposals may come next.”

Prof Hazell added: “If Nick Clegg had wanted to overcome resistance in Parliament to his proposals, he should have taken more time. He might also have gained from a ‘democracy day’ referendum on both issues: electoral reform for the Commons, and elections to the Lords”.

Watch Robert Hazell’s video predicting the outcome of the AV referendum

Notes for Editors

  • Robert Hazell is discussing the referendum on BBC News Channel at 8.30am on Friday 6 May, and from 10.15 to 12 noon, and at 16.45. Our Press Officer, Brian Walker, can be contacted on 07802 176347.
  • The Constitution Unit first predicted in June 2010 that the AV referendum would be lost. These warnings were repeated in the Unit’s newsletter Monitor in October 2010, January 2011, and on the Unit’s blog (‘Five reasons why the AV referendum will be lost’ 2 April 2011).
  • In Canada, referendums on electoral reform were held in British Columbia (2007) and Ontario (2009), in circumstances more propitious for a Yes vote than in the UK, and both voted no.
  • The government plans shortly to publish a draft bill on Lords reform (which was initially promised by end of 2010). This will first be considered by a joint committee of both chambers of parliament, before being formally introduced.

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