Clegg will today slaughter another sacred cow when he announces the abandonment of the party’s long-held commitment to electoral reform. Liberator has seen an advance copy of a speech that Clegg will deliver this morning at an event hosted by the right-of-centre think tank Policy Exchange.
The speech starts off with some fine words about the importance of constitutional reform and rebuilding people’s trust in the political system. But about halfway through, Clegg drops this bombshell:
My party will always advocate an electoral system that respects the wishes of every voter. But, at the last election, we promised to introduce a system of fairer votes. We said we would introduce proportional representation and expressed a preference for the single transferable vote.
We felt it was an honest and pragmatic solution to the problem of people’s lack of trust in politicians. Better surely, we asked, to introduce a fairer system of voting so that the House of Commons would more accurately reflect popular opinion.
But, despite the policy’s aims, it was seen by many people as a reward for parties that came third. Or sometimes even lower. And so it risked undermining public confidence in the electoral system. The very public confidence that is essential to building a democratic Britain. That is why I am no longer convinced this specific policy should be retained in our manifesto for the next General Election.
So I have asked Lord John Sharkey, who did such a sterling job running the AV referendum campaign, to lead a review of this and our other constitutional policies in the run up to 2015.Strictly speaking, of course, Clegg isn’t formally altering party policy. But as with last week’s speech on immigration, any nuances will be lost. Phrases like “I am no longer convinced” and calls for a “review” will be interpreted by the media as a definitive change of policy.
Members of the party’s Federal Policy Committee were told about the speech last week but were not shown its contents. However, during preliminary discussions on the party’s next manifesto, they were informed that Clegg feels the results of the AV referendum in 2011 have pushed the issue off the table for the foreseeable future and that the party should concentrate its campaigning elsewhere.
Liberator understands that opinion among Clegg’s advisers remains divided. The ‘doves’ are arguing that electoral reform of some unspecified kind – though not AV – should be retained in the manifesto but that it should not be given any great emphasis. The ‘hawks’ believe that, with the public having shown its view so emphatically two years ago, Clegg should bow to the weight of opinion, rule out any form of PR and come out explicitly in favour of first-past-the-post.
Although, on the face of it, the tentative wording of the speech suggests that the doves have won this argument, the spinning going on behind the scenes indicates that the real winners are the hawks. Their agenda seems to be to maintain the coalition with the Tories beyond 2015.
The hawks have been briefing journalists recently that Clegg’s experience of working closely in government with the Conservatives has opened his eyes to the merits of their point of view on this and several other key issues, including secret courts and immigration. They are saying that, after five years in a coalition, the public expects to see the Liberal Democrats take a series of positions closer to the Conservatives. They add that getting proportional representation out of the way will help cement voters’ views of the party as a slightly more moderate and sensible version of the Conservatives, which is the political space Clegg wants to occupy.
Clegg’s support for secret courts and his populist position on immigration suggest that such a strategy is already being implemented. Further evidence is that Clegg has asked his adviser Julian Astle to conduct market research on a possible slogan for the 2015 election campaign, with one front-runner being ‘Liberal Democrats – the conservative party for thinking people’.
The dropping of electoral reform will cause deep unease within the Liberal Democrats, given the long attachment of many members to this cause. Indeed, today’s speech is bound to spark another internal row, probably even greater than the one over secret courts. The dispute will fester until the party’s autumn conference, where the Social Liberal Forum and Liberal Reform, in a rare show of unity, are already planning to submit a motion reaffirming party policy in favour of STV. The leadership will doubtless try every trick in the book to keep such a motion off the conference agenda, possibly by substituting a more anodyne motion of their own. If these manoeuvres fail and an uncompromising pro-PR motion is debated, the leadership will struggle to defeat it since it will attract the votes of most delegates, apart from those who have died of boredom after having STV explained to them by people in yellow sweatshirts.
In any event, we should know the truth of Clegg’s intentions by noon today.