In the end, it wasn’t close. British voters rejected the Alternative Vote by a thumping margin of 13 million against with only 6 million for. By region, the margin was even more devastating: 10 areas in favor, 430 against. It tells you perhaps all you need to know about AV that three of the areas it won were high-toned Islington and university-dominated Oxford and Cambridge. As the Telegraph summed it up, the results were “a titanic butt-kicking for the Yes campaign.”
It must be said that neither campaign covered itself in glory. The No campaign invested heavily in the dubious argument that switching to AV would cost too much money, a classic effort to turn a molehill into a mountain. If AV really were the better system, it would be foolish not to spend the money on it. But the Yes campaign was sillier still, with the President of the Liberal Democrats taking the top prize for claiming Britain’s current first-past-the-post system “predates the empire, predates slavery and helped sustain both,” and if that were not bad enough, it allowed Margaret Thatcher to preside over “organised wickedness.” In politics, hyperbole correlates reliably with desperation.
That desperation is now being felt throughout the Lib Dems. Indeed, it’s not clear if the British public was voting against AV on its merits, or against AV as a proxy for the Lib Dems. The Tories, by contrast, had a good night. Apart from the AV victory, they took control of three more local councils, on a night when virtually everyone expected them to lose. But the big winner were the Scottish Nationalists, who took a majority in the Scottish Parliament, setting the stage for the possible breakup of Britain. This is confirmation of Jonathan’s comment on the Canadian election: looking for international trends in national elections is generally a waste of time. In the same week that the Bloc Quebecois was crushed in Canada, its Scottish counterpart swept the field.
The irony of the AV referendum is that the Lib Dems thought it would make them into Britain’s third party. Instead, it may end up destroying them, and in the process return Britain to a two-party system, which is ideally suited to the first-past-the-post system for which the British people have shown such enthusiastic support.