Referendums: Labour’s last chance?

26 July 2009

A referendum asking the British electorate about changing the voting system for Westminster from the current first-past-the-post to alternative vote, as mooted by Labour, is not a bad idea, both in principle and tactically. According to Labour plans, this referendum will take place on the same day as the general election, and the reformed voting system will come into effect for the next general election, one after the upcoming one. That would suit Labour well: if it were introduced for the upcoming election, Labour is more likely to lose seats (other candidates’ votes will swing around the anti-Labour candidate), but not for the one after, given the Conservatives will need to wield the axe and cut down on public spending. The Tory government could ignore and not legislate to effect the change, but it would cost a huge deal of goodwill if it were to do so, if the majority favoured a change.

If I were a Labour strategist, accepting that a heavy defeat is likely, and the most important thing is to make Mr Cameron’s life difficult once he becomes the prime minsiter, then I would put another referendum on the same day: ‘in or out of’ the EU. Perhaps two referendums on Europe: one on ‘in or out’ and another on the Lisbon Treaty. There are still different views on Europe among the Tories, and the Conservative supporters may vote ‘no’ in the ‘in or out’ question, even if the party decides ‘yes’ to that question, and ‘no’ to Lisbon. Such a referendum would bolster the UKIP vote, since UKIP will stand on out of the EU ticket. This move will also neurtralize the Liberal Democrats to the extent that their positions will be similar to those of Labour.

But this is playing with fire: even if something is a good idea in principle, but it is done purely for tactical reason, then voters may reject it for the dislike of being taken for fools and falling for tactical manoeuvres.