As the campaign to switch to the alternative vote heads towards defeat, analysts tell Channel 4 News it will set back electoral reform – but there is a glimmer of hope for the Lib Dems.
The results of the referendum over whether Britain should replace first past the post with the alternative vote (AV) are being counted.
As more of the 440 areas declare their results, predictions that “No to AV” would win the day appeared to be holding up.
A YouGov exit poll suggested that the No camp would secure 68 per cent of the vote, and the first areas to declare appeared to broadly follow this pattern. The Isles of Scilly was the first area to report its figures, where 65.3 per cent opted to say no to AV.
The final result is expected to be declared after 9pm. Initial figures from the Electoral Commission showed that turnout ranged from 35.4 per cent to 50.7 per cent in the vote, after a bad-tempered campaign that exposed deep divisions in the coalition.
Get the latest results from the Electoral Commission
Senior figures in the Liberal Democrat party, which has championed reform, also came close to acknowledging defeat in the referendum on AV. Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable admitted: “We don’t expect to have an easy night.”
Political analyst Greg Callus told Channel 4 News that a loss for those backing electoral reform – notably, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg – could see the issue off the table for at least a decade.
We don’t expect to have an easy night. Business Secretary Vince Cable
Mr Callus said: “The conventional wisdom is that a loss in the referendum would take electoral reform off the agenda for the next generation. Certainly there will not be another referendum on the issue within the next five or 10 years.
“There could be a situation where there is another hung parliament, and the Liberals and Labour come together for a referendum on something like AV plus. But that would be very difficult in the next parliament.”
However, he said that the issue would not disappear completely, because the FPTP system was creaking under the pressure of a wider political landscape.
“FPTP is not sustainable, so we may see some other, less controversial, reform within the next 15 years,” he said.
Mr Callus said the AV loss was not all bad news for the Lib Dems – and could instead see them gain real weight in the Coalition, giving them more opportunities to have serious influence on policy.
“In a way, it could be fantastic for the Lib Dems,” he said. “This removes the vast majority of their incentive to stay in government. The Conservatives need them in government because this poll shows that they do not have the support to win outright in a General Election.
“So to keep them in government, they are going to want policy concessions. My guess is that they will get more policy leverage in Cabinet.”
He said that key issues such as the NHS could be up for grabs for the Lib Dems to stamp their mark on.
“So, say David Laws returns to Cabinet to take over from Andrew Lansley, the Lib Dems could then take over the NHS and claim ‘We saved the NHS’,” he said.
“Many Tories are happy today but Andrew Lansley should not be happy. His job and key policy could be sold down the river in return for Liberal Democrat support.”
He added: “So although they lost on AV, in return for keeping the Tories in power, the Lib Dems could see concessions to policy which will please the left-wing and help them avoid absolute electoral disaster.”