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Britain will continue to use the first-past-the-post electoral system to select Members of Parliament after a proposal to switch to the Alternative Vote method was resoundingly defeated in a nationwide referendum.
When the final results were in, 12,570,539 had voted ‘No’ while 5,807,086 had voted ‘Yes.’
Voting reform has long been a priority of the Liberal Democrats and when they entered into a coalition government with the Conservatives last May, they extracted a promise from Tory leader David Cameron to hold a referendum on whether or not to change the method of voting.
Supporters of AV argued that it would reduce the number of ‘safe seats’ and make MPs more accountable to the electorate. Furthermore, it would help ensure that future governments were actually supported by a majority of citizens. The AV campaign also attracted the support of a large number of celebrities, including comedians Stephen Fry and Eddie Izzard.
Opponents of AV claimed that it would be expensive to implement and would give more power to politicians. They also raised the specter of an endless series of coalition governments like those seen on the Continent.
The No victory is not unexpected since most recent opinions polls suggested that the pro-AV camp was headed for defeat. Voting reform was seen as an example of ‘dog whistle politics’ that only a small segment of the population felt passionately about. Also, the No campaign was bolstered by David Cameron’s vigorous intervention.
Cameron’s decision to come out so strongly against AV has led to tensions within the coalition government. Many Liberal Democrat ministers had expected him to lie low in the interests of preserving unity in government and his robust engagement has led to accusations of treachery. Last week, British media reported that Energy Secretary Chris Huhne got into a heated argument with David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne during a Cabinet meeting over what he saw as the unfair tactics of the No campaign.
The defeat of AV was not the only bitter pill for the Liberal Democrats to swallow. Yesterday’s local government elections saw them lose almost half their councilors and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is likely to come under considerable pressure from grass roots elements of his party who have long been unhappy with the decision to enter into a coalition with the Tories. Although it is unlikely that Clegg will face a serious challenge to his leadership, the BBC predicts that he will try to shore up his support within his own party by standing up to his Tory colleagues more often. It has also been rumored that the Liberal Democrats may get a consolation prize of sorts in the form of a proposal to use proportional representation for elections to a reformed House of Lords. But given the history of Lords reform, it is not at all certain that these proposals will ever make it off of the drawing board and Clegg may find that he is in for a rough couple of months.
UPDATE: The UK Electoral Commission has released updated voting figures for the AV referendum. The Noes are now 13,013,123 while the Yeses are 6,152,607.