Even keen electoral reformers are acknowledging that their heavy defeat in the AV referendum earlier this month means changing the electoral system for the House of Commons is a dead issue for a good few years, at the very least.
So where does the referendum result leave the next big reform item on the government’s agenda – introducing elections for the House of Lords?
It would be a mistake for Liberal Democrats (or indeed reformers in the Conservative Party’s ranks) to conclude from the referendum result that all political reform should now be side-lined. The referendum No vote was not a vote of confidence in our political system. Politicians continue to be one of the least respected professions in Britain.
But particularly for the Liberal Democrats, it would be a mistake to think that the route back to the party’s early 2010 levels of popularity lies in abandoning a long-held party demand. Constitutional reform is not top of the public’s list of priorities – which is why Lib Dem prominence on issues such as the NHS is important – but it’s no secret that it has long been top of the Liberal Democrats’ list of priorities. Giving up on it would not only be controversial with activists, it would trigger a round of media headlines about u-turns, splits, leadership weakness and going back on previous policies.
Nick Clegg told Radio 4 in August last year, “I wouldn’t have stood for the leadership of the Lib Dems if I thought the only sole purpose in life was to change the electoral system”. The repeated enthusiasm with which he made the point at the time – before the AV vote – caused some controversy but the essence of it still applies. Political reform was not the only priority on the front page of the 2010 general election manifesto – but it was there, as one of the set of four.
One of the perks of being in government is that it gives enough media profile to be able to talk about more than one issue – not many more, but more than one.
Therefore what Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats need to do is to show they are both sticking to their beliefs that the political system needs to change without coming over as single-issue political reform campaigners.
Dr Mark Pack is Head of Digital at MHP Communications and previously ran the Liberal Democrats’ 2001 and 2005 internet general election campaigns.