6 May 2011

Britain votes ‘no’ in AV referendum

Britain’s voters overwhelmingly reject calls to switch to the Alternative Vote system – but is this a death knell for electoral reform? Channel 4 News speaks to politicians, analysts and academics.

Britain votes 'no' to AV (Reuters)

The “No to AV” campaign has declared a “resounding victory” in the AV referendum, after more than two-thirds of those who voted backed the status quo.

“No” votes outnumbered those seeking change by more than two-to-one throughout the night. With the votes in all but one of the 440 regions counted by Friday evening, 12.6m people voted for no – around 68 per cent, while 5.8m voted for yes, just under 32 per cent.

Mr Clegg said the result in the AV referendum was “a bitter blow” but insisted the coalition would continue and the Liberal Democrats would “move on” from their setback.

The Deputy Prime Minister said: “I wish I could say this was a photo-finish but it isn’t. The result is very clear. I am a passionate supporter of political reform, but when the answer is as clear as this, you have got to accept it. In a democracy when you ask a question and you get an overwhelming answer, you just have to accept it and move on.”

I wish I could say this was a photo-finish but it isn’t. The result is very clear. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg

Mr Clegg added: “This is a bitter blow for all those people – like me – who believe in the need for political reform. But the answer is clear and the wider job of the Government and the Liberal Democrats in Government will continue – to repair the economy, to restore a sense of prosperity and jobs and optimism to the country. That’s the job that we have started and we will see it through.

“Clearly this has been a really disappointing day and we have had a lot of very disappointing results overnight, but we are going to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and move on.”

Figures from the Electoral Commission suggest a turnout of around 41 per cent, after a bad-tempered campaign that exposed deep divisions in the coalition government. While the Liberal Democrats championed reform, their Conservative coalition partners rejected it.

Interviewed on Channel 4 News, the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary Chris Huhne, admitted defeat.

“I think what we have discovered in this decisive rejection by the electorate of the Alternative Vote is that it has rather fewer friends who are actively enthusiastic for the system than we had hoped at the beginning,” he said.

“As good democrats we have to accept that result. Clearly the people have spoken and they have spoken in no uncertain terms.”

The scorpion and the frog?
The Liberal Democrats have been annihilated in both the AV vote and the local elections, after they teamed up with the Conservatives to govern.

Are their losses the sting in the tail of success? Or just a case of the scorpion and the frog? Political Editor Gary Gibbon takes a look.

Many have suggested that a defeat in the referendum on AV could spell the end of electoral reform for this generation.

But Mr Huhne said electoral reform could be back on the agenda “quicker than people think” as the existing First Past the Post (FPTP) system could struggle to cope with multi-party elections.

His views were echoed by Professor of Politics at Liverpool University, Bill Jones, who told Channel 4 News that, AV or no AV, the British political system was entering the “age of the coalition”.

We’re in an age where coalitions will become the norm. Professor Bill Jones

Critics of AV had suggested it was more likely to lead to coalition governments – but Professor Jones said this was not the case.

“The idea that FPTP leads to no coalitions will be proved wrong. In 1951, 97 per cent of people voted for the Tories or Labour. In May last year, only 65 per cent did,” he explained.

“There are lots more smaller parties, Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Ulster Unionists, the nationalists. There are 30 others. So now to get a majority you need to have not just more than your big rival, but also as many or more than the little parties as well.

“We’re in an age where coalitions will become the norm, even under FPTP.”

Could AV loss halt NHS reforms? 
Political analyst Greg Callus explains how the AV loss could be - against the odds - "fantastic news" for the Liberal Democrats.

"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, the Lib Dems 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.

"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."

Read more from Greg Callus on the AV referendum


The battle over AV became increasingly ugly, as Prime Minister David Cameron, in the no camp, squared up against his Deputy, Nick Clegg, who backed reform.

Foreign Secretary William Hague, who joined other senior Tories in spearheading the “no” campaign, said the partnership with the Lib Dems would “go on very successfully” but admitted: “Holding a referendum on AV with the two parties on opposing sides has been the most difficult thing so far that we have had to go through.”

Former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown warned that there would be “consequences” for the coalition over the way the No to AV campaign – which was largely funded by Tory backers – was run. There is anger among Liberal Democrats at the way the campaign personally targeted Nick Clegg for taking what they see as difficult decisions in the interests of the coalition.

The coalition has got to continue but I think the odds on it not lasting the course must have shortened considerably. Professor Bill Jones

Lord Ashdown said David Cameron should have distanced himself from the “no” campaign’s tactics. But he added: “This is about the national interest. We have a job to do …. There’s no question of ending the coalition.”

However, Professor Jones believes that the result could send major shockwaves through the coalition – and particularly the Liberal Democrats.

He told Channel 4 News: “The coalition has got to continue but I think the odds on it not lasting the course must have shortened considerably.

Get the full results from the Electoral Commission 

“Nick Clegg is in a difficult position. Simon Hughes, Chris Huhne fancy their chances – my tip is that the party may splinter. Those who are happy in the coalition, like Nick Clegg, will stay, then the body of the party, its activists, will gather behind another leader – it could be the new liberal party.”

Whatever the outcome, Professor Jones said the AV vote showed that the “illusion of collegiality” in the coalition had been shattered.

“This shows that they cordially hate each other,” he said.