What the AV referendum debate tells us about a future referendum on EU membership

Richard Laming
By Richard Laming

The referendum on changing the electoral system for the House of Commons has divided the world of politics but also, in another way, has united it. The division is between those who want to change the system to the Alternative Vote and those who want to keep First Past The Post. The unity is to condemn the lamentable quality of the campaign.

Leading Yes campaigner Chris Huhne has criticised one Cabinet colleague for “Goebbels-like” propaganda and threatened another with legal action. No campaign leaflets denounced Nick Clegg for breaking a promise on tuition fees in favour of a policy that the people behind the No campaign themselves actually supported.

The claims of the No campaign about AV are either false – the countries that use it are thinking of changing back, it gives some voters more votes than others, the far right would benefit – or irrelevant – it would cost more and take longer to count the votes.

But the Yes side is hardly on the side of the angels. Its talk of an end of safe seats and tactical voting is exaggerated – there would probably be fewer safe seats and less tactical voting but they would not be abolished altogether – and there is no obvious connection between the electoral system and MPs’ expense claims.

The argument has been based on personal attacks and factual inaccuracies rather than a serious analysis of the matter in hand. But, really, what else did anyone expect?

Most people don’t know very much about how electoral systems work, and this includes many of the commentators in the media, and they don’t know because they haven’t cared. Politics up until now has been about policies and the personalities behind those policies; the referendum is about a small procedural change. Not only that, the change in the electoral system, though modest, could have far-reaching significance, but nobody can be sure exactly what that significance will be.

And above all, the people proposing the change didn’t even support it themselves. Most of them preferred a system of proportional representation, but that was not on the ballot paper.

With the raw material of tedium and uncertainty, it was never likely that the campaign would catch fire. If the price of being eye-catching is to be inaccurate, that never stopped the British media in the past.

But what has this got to do with Europe? Sadly, quite a lot.

At the same time as the political class has been fighting itself over AV and FPTP, the government’s European Union Bill has been slithering its way through parliament. Intended as compensation to the Tory eurosceptics who were denied by David Cameron their longed-for confrontation with the EU, the Bill proposes that any future changes to the EU treaties that provide the EU institutions with new powers should be approved not only by parliament but also by a referendum.

This goes beyond the idea that a major new stage in European integration, such as joining the euro, should be based on direct public assent. It demands that even small, minor changes should also be put in front of the people.

For example, the Lisbon treaty has conferred upon the EU the competence to carry out actions “to support, coordinate or supplement the actions of the Member States” in the fields of tourism and sport. Within the terms of the EU Bill, any similar change in future in another policy area would require a referendum. Similarly, if there were to be a change from unanimity to qualified majority voting on measures concerning operational cooperation between national customs authorities (as foreseen in article 87, TFEU), that would be put to a public vote.

How could a referendum like this be fought?

Is it something that most people don’t know nor care about? Check. Is the debate about procedures rather than policies or personalities? Yup. Is there controversy over the significance of the proposal? Yes indeed. Would the two sides fighting over this actually prefer to be fighting over another, related question? Most certainly!

This is the recipe we have become horribly familiar with. The future of the European debate in Britain is likely to be more referendums on the electoral reform model, bitter and irrelevant squabbles over something that even policy experts cannot understand.

And that’s the best outcome. The alternatives are either that small, necessary improvements to the way the EU works cannot be made at all for fear of a British referendum, or that they are made sidelining Britain along the way. Either of those two is surely worse. So, rather than shuddering at the memory of the electoral reform referendum and the poor quality of debate, we should get used to it. This is the future of British politics.

First published in the European, the newsletter of the European Movement in London (May 2011)

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