So the Alternative Vote campaign begins in earnest. With Nick Clegg presenting to the House his plans for electoral reform including a package of reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600, fixed terms, equalising the size of constituencies and, of course, a referendum on altering the way that MPs are elected.
He delivered the whole thing in very forceful and authoritative tones showing that what Nick Clegg wants, Nick Clegg gets. As long as Dave Cameron wants it too that is.
Gone is the Clegg of April this year who said he'd reject any "miserable little compromise" on electoral reform but that he'd be "insisting on the changes only we advocate... I want to try to push this all the way."
Commenting on Brown's suggested compromise advocating AV he said that "AV is a baby step in the right direction – only because nothing can be worse than the status quo. If we want to change British politics once and for all, we have got to have a quite simple system in which everyone's votes count. We think AV-plus is a feasible way to proceed. At least it is proportional – and it retains a constituency link.
"The Labour Party assumes that changes to the electoral system are like crumbs for the Liberal Democrats from the Labour table. I am not going to settle for a miserable little compromise thrashed out by the Labour Party."Mr Clegg took a rather different position in the House today though. No longer is AV crumbs from the rich man's table but the kind of ambrosia enjoyed by the Gods.
Now it seems the miserable little compromise will "fix our political system" which will "restore people's faith in their politics once again". Which is nice, although perhaps the word fix in this context is not necessarily that well chosen.
Now, to my mind, Clegg actually did a pretty good job at batting the questions of Labour MPs back at them, ably assisted by those Labour MPs themselves as they complained that equalising the size of the constituencies was "partisan" or in plain language, it's not good for the Labour Party to address the massive discrepancy in size of constituencies. I think a focus on whether it's more democratic might be more effective than whether it keeps your feet under the table.
Equally the arguments of Scottish and Welsh nationalists that holding the referendum on the same day as the election was "contemptuous" come across as partisan moaning. It's good to hold these things on the same day because it increases turn-out and reduces costs end of story. I just went through a local election massively distorted by the general where half the people who voted never normally vote in, nor think about local politics, but you don't see me complaining do you? Grinding my teeth perhaps, but that';s anther story.
However, I think this whole position of, in Clegg's words, "Are they in favour of reform, or of the status quo?" is simple bullying and an attempt to prevent people actually looking at the content of reforms, instead of just being in favour of any old reform that comes along and having to accept it, no matter how thin, irrelevant or tactically problematic.
I thought Austin Mitchell was right when he said "It is a great shame that the Deputy Prime Minister did not have the guts to fight for the best change in the electoral system, and the one in which he once believed and I still do-that is, proportional representation. Would it not be fair to give the electorate a say on that as well as on the alternative vote in the coming referendum?"
A point Clegg refused to answer, sadly given the opportunity by Mitchell himself when he coupled this point with a more partisan point-scoring comment that Clegg chose to respond to, allowing him to ignore proportional representation altogether. (Incidentally that's a good pro-tip when asking questions, ask one key thing and only that key thing and it makes it neigh on impossible for the interviewee to duck the question without looking evasive).
At least Mitchell asked about PR though, I've trawled the entire the debate and not a single one of the Lib Dems (who supposedly want PR) mentioned it, nor did any of the "electoral reformers" on the other benches. That's despite the fact that the bill has not gone through any of the process, including being written, the question not set nor the electoral commission had their opportunity to examine the proposed questions.
There's also the small question of the House of Lords which, it appears, may well have an elected element, and if everyone has effectively given up on PR who knows what electoral monstrosity we'll get for that.
So there is still space to fight for PR, but only if we take the opportunity. Not just because AV does not address any of the key issues about how millions of voters are disenfranchised but also because if it gets to an AV yes or no referendum then our chance for real Parliamentary reform is dead.
Here's three scenarios as I see them - feel free to pick holes.
a) Bill goes through as planned. There's a referendum on AV. The public says NO.
That's the end of *all* fundamental reforms for a generation, I think we all agree on that.
b) Bill goes through as planned. There's a referendum on AV. The public say YES.
Now we're in a situation where millions of people have voted FOR a particular and specific method of electing our MPs for 2015 and beyond. Who's now going to campaign to overturn the popular, democratic vote? A second referendum changing the system again cant happen in this Parliament, but it wont happen in any Parliament any time soon either because the public will have already spoken.
c) The Bill does not go through as planned.
c - i) it is defeated by a mix of Tory rebels and Labour MPs. Come 2015 the pressure for electoral reform will still be there, not headed off by a silly referendum on a change that makes little difference. In this situation 2015 offers a hope that PR can get on the agenda.
c - ii) the bill is amended to include a PR option. Hopefully a two stage referendum like they did in New Zealand that first chose the preferred alternative and then ratified that there would be a change. A real and honest campaign for PR can let rip and no one will even remember AV is on the ballot, because no one gives a toss about AV in the same way that only the starving care about the fact that rats are edible.
It seems to me that if the bill goes through unamended then PR is dead for a generation. All these people who think that if AV is won it is a step on the road to PR seem to forget that the British public aren't going to keep chopping and changing their electoral system and go back to referendum after referendum changing and then rechanging their electoral system.
It's not purism to want a proportional election system rather than a non-proportional one. Nor is it purism to see that a meaningless reform that prevents proportionality is worse than keeping the door open for real change. The question is not yet written, hell, the bill is not yet written - we should not give up on PR now.