x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Can anything be more exciting than British electoral reform?

Apathy and the vote for the status quo this seems likely to deliver is exactly the result the country's two main political parties have been hoping for.

After the rush of excitement for the royal wedding (and an extended series of public holidays), it was the turn of another ancient tradition to preoccupy Britons this week, although one that engenders less passion and certainly little prospect of dancing in the streets.

The issue of electoral reform, in particular replacing the country's antique first-past-the-post voting system with something better, does not quite date back to Alfred the Great burning the cakes, or even the Act of Union of 1770 that merged the kingdoms of England and Scotland. But there are times when it feels like it. Even the run-up to Thursday's referendum has seemed interminable. Most Britons are thoroughly bored by the whole business.

The deadlines of this newspaper mean that this article was written well before the actual result is known, but it seems fair to make two predictions. Firstly, that a proposal to change the UK's electoral system will be heavily defeated. And secondly, that getting people to vote about how they vote is even more of a challenge than getting them to vote in the first place.

Apathy, and the vote for the status quo this seems likely to deliver, is exactly the result the country's two main political parties have been hoping for, especially David Cameron, the prime minister and leader of the Conservatives. It is true that Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition Labour party, has been campaigning on a "yes to change" platform, but it is not just the general public who disagree with him. A lot of his party do, too.

There was a time when reform of the voting system was official Labour party policy. That time was about 100 years ago, when the fledgling socialist group was the third party of British politics. After edging out the Liberal Party - the predecessors of the current Liberal Democrats - as the main opposition and then forming a succession of governments, Labour decided it really quite liked the current system after all.

The old Liberal party, in contrast, was staunchly indifferent to changing the voting system, and for good reason. In 1906, the Liberals won the greatest victory in their history and a majority of 241 seats over the Tories. By 1957, the party was reduced to just five members of parliament and - too late - was fully committed to electoral reform.

Occupying third place in a two-party system has always been hard luck in British politics. In recent elections, the Lib Dems have won a massive pile of votes but been left with relatively little to show for it.

Quite correctly, Lib Dems blame an electoral system that delivers victory to whoever gets the most votes in any one of 650 parliamentary constituencies. In theory - and often in practice - this means an MP can get elected with rather more than half the votes cast against him or her.

Defenders of the current system argue that this at least produces strong governments. They point to Italy, which uses proportional representation and which has had 61 governments since 1945 as against just 18 in Britain. Proportion representation (PR) they say, is a recipe for political chaos.

Then came last year's UK elections that left the Conservatives as the biggest party in the House of Commons, but dependent on 62 Lib Dem MPs to form a majority government. An early vote on electoral reform was one the conditions of coalition support.

Victory seemed a formality. Opinion polls have always shown the British public in favour of a better, fairer, system. Yet now the issue seems dead and buried for another generation.

How did this happen? Probably because the proposed reform - the alternative vote - while being about the most complicated imaginable, does not appear to be much fairer than the current system. Voters must list candidates in the order in which they find them least objectionable. If no one wins an absolute majority first time round, the votes of the biggest losers are redistributed among the rest of the candidates until a winner is found. Meaning, perhaps, someone who wasn't most people's first choice.

It would thus be an almost unbearable irony for supporters of reform if, when all the votes are counted, the result turns out to be indisputable and absolute majority vote against changing the current system.