Analysis: Who benefits from Clegg’s reforms?

Clegg’s announcement of a raft of constitutional reforms prompted angry outbursts in the Commons. But who benefits, and will anything really change?

By Ian Dunt

Jack Straw’s rage was palpable as he responded to Nick Clegg’s statement on constitutional reform in the Commons yesterday. Despite having put a referendum on AV in its manifesto, Labour was opposing the vast majority of what was contained in the package. Why?

Constituency sizes: Straw reserved special disdain for the proposal to equalise the size of constituencies. The number of MPs will be reduced from 650 to 600 and each seat will have roughly 75,000 electors. Special exemptions were made for the Orkney and Shetland and Western Isles constituencies, which have roughly a third of the number of constituents of most seats, but not for the Isle of Wight. The reason Labour MPs are so incandescent with rage at this proposal is that they are the main losers. The party had retained a distinct electoral advantage for several decades because so many of its MPs come from city centre, northern and Scottish seats with shrinking populations. Nationalists will also oppose the move, with Plaid Cymru already complaining that Wales will lose a quarter of its seats. The clear winners will be the Conservatives, with suburban voters (usually Tory) given a greater say.

It’s no coincidence that this policy has been wrapped up with the AV referendum, and therefore triggered Labour accusations of “gerrymandering”. David Cameron calculated that Tory gains through seat equalisation will make up for losses resulting from the introduction of AV. In fact, the constitutional package should end up with a net gain for the Tories, although the numbers are still being worked out by academics and think tanks.

AV: The introduction of the alternative vote, where voters list their preference for MP in order, rather than just selecting one, has traditionally been assumed to favour the Lib Dems. It does not constitute full proportional representation (PR), which allocates representatives on the basis of their share of the national vote. Such a reform would be a major boost for Britain’s third party, but Clegg is clearly intent on taking what he can get.

A study by the Electoral Reform Society just after the general election suggested AV would have cost the Conservatives 25 seats and gained the Lib Dems 22. Such a change makes future coalitions slightly more likely, although it’s somewhat short of a revolutionary change in the political character of Britain. There are other theories, however. Some analysts think the introduction of the system would dampen the British dispensation for tactical voting. This has traditionally been a massive help to the Lib Dems, with southern voters choosing them to keep out Labour and northern voters choosing them to keep out the Tories. It’s not clear if this theory holds firm yet, but if it does it could have devastating consequences for the Lib Dems.

The date: Jack Straw and several other speakers paid particular attention to the date of the referendum, which coincides with local Scottish parliament and Welsh Assembly elections. Scottish and Welsh politicians are upset that the media interest around the referendum will massively reduce debate on politics in their country. Others cite the last Scottish elections, which were marred by overly-complex ballot papers, although Mr Clegg insisted the paper would feature a simple choice between AV and status quo. Another argument against the date is that it allows for “differential turnout”. Many people who don’t have to vote in local elections (London, for instance, has no elections) will not bother going to the polls for constitutional matters they have little interest in. That means a single voter where there are local elections gets as much democratic power as dozens of Londoners who don’t bother to vote. This has led some MPs to toy with the idea of tabling amendments demanding a threshold of 40% for the referendum’s result to be sustained. Expect democracy activists to fight this tooth-and-nail.

‘No confidence’: While concerns about the government’s separate proposal for dissolving parliament when 55% of MPs vote for it have subsided due to the increase in the benchmark to 66%, some constitutional worries persist. The coalition government plans to cement the ‘no confidence’ measures in law. As things stand, a vote of ‘no confidence’ sends the PM to the Queen. But under the proposals, there is a two-week window for party leaders to try to form a stable government. Critics say this is just an invitation for the sitting prime minister to offer bribes to smaller parties, such as the Ulster Unionists, in a desperate bid to save his or her job.

The future of the coalition: Cameron sat serenely on the front bench yesterday as the deputy prime minister announced the date of the referendum. It was, of course, the last-ditch offer of the referendum from the Tories which clinched the deal with the Lib Dems, on the caveat that the Tories were free to campaign against it. Some parliamentary observers fail to see how the coalition can continue its love-in once the two men spend a year campaigning against each other. They also note that should the Lib Dems lose the referendum Clegg will have lost his incentive to stay in the coalition. After all, why take endless flak from your own party, the opposition and the media when your goal of voting reform has bitten the dust? This may well turn out to be true. Even if it isn’t Clegg’s party might force him out the coalition whatever his opinion.

But many commentators underestimate Clegg’s commitment to the project he embarked on with Cameron in the wake of the general election. The two men show every sign of having committed to this coalition until 2015 (or probably a year earlier, to give the Lib Dems time to cement their identity before polling day). Also, Clegg’s to-do list does not consist simply of AV. House of Lords reform and civil liberties also feature prominently in his agenda. He will know that if he fails on AV, he will need to provide Lib Dem voters and members with solid results on this front if his gamble with Cameron is to have paid off.