Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Strange bedfellows

18 April 2011 Last updated at 17:49 GMT Laura Kuenssberg By Laura Kuenssberg Chief political correspondent, BBC News channel David Cameron and Lord Reid, Ed Miliband and Vince Cable Getting politicians from different parties to campaign together on an issue is a rare event So what are we to make of the odd couple political outings on Monday morning?

Is it that weird to see those normally trying to stab each other in the back burying the hatchet instead?

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg thinks such cross-party love-ins - with former bitter rivals swapping pleasantries for the cameras - will have little impact on the 5 May referendum.

He told me the country won't decide whether or not to change the Westminster voting system on the basis of who shares a platform with whom.

He may well say that - but with Labour leader Ed Miliband still refusing to share a platform with him, he was not given a chance to test out the theory at the Yes campaign event.


The rival "Yes" and "No" campaigns - who put together Monday's competing media events - clearly believe there is some merit in getting politicians from different parties to appear alongside each other.

That it will make the public - who have so far showed few signs of caring about this referendum - sit up and take notice.

But what was the point, beyond getting better known faces to stand in front of the campaign logos that still remain a mystery to much of the public?

Continue reading the main story

At the moment MPs are elected by the first-past-the-post system, where the candidate getting the most votes in a constituency is elected.

On 5 May all registered UK voters will be able to vote Yes or No on whether to change the way MPs are elected to the Alternative Vote system.

Under the Alternative Vote system, voters rank candidates in their constituency in order of preference.

Anyone getting more than 50% of first-preference votes is elected.

If no-one gets 50% of votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their backers' second choices allocated to those remaining.

This process continues until one candidate has at least 50% of all votes in that round.

The novelty factor of Tony Blair's former enforcer, John Reid, sharing a platform with the prime minister ensured more media coverage than might would otherwise have been the case, as they argued in favour of keeping the current voting system.

A no-nonsense Reid appeared hardly to believe he was there himself, and seemed to revel in the novelty of the occasion.

And the presence of Vince Cable, alongside Mr Miliband, at the Yes event allowed hacks to throw in a few pointed questions about the coalition and Mr Cable's row with Mr Cameron last week over immigration.

(The Yes event also had a "surprise" guest - although why Alan Johnson - a well-known advocate of the alternative vote - counts as a "surprise" remains a mystery).

It is not surprising that Labour politicians are involved in both campaigns.

The party is more or less split from top to bottom, even though they promised a vote on changing the way MPs are chosen in their general election manifesto.

And the "no" campaign have been determined to include Labour voices in their campaign, although it is backed vigorously by the Conservatives and Conservative donors' money.

They do not want the campaign to preserve the current way of voting to be seen only as a Conservative project.

And it is not surprising that Liberal Democrats and other Labour politicians have appeared together at "yes" events - after all, the alternative vote system would increase the chances of politicians having to work together in coalitions.

Major implications

But there is another reason too, plainly articulated by John Reid, that when fundamental change is on the horizon the public expects politicians to work together.

It happens all the time when MPs from different parties band together to fight for their local areas, whether for new roads, or to save a hospital.

But in national politics it is a very rare event.

The last significant example, perhaps, was when rival campaigns battled it out over whether Britain should join the euro in the early years of the last decade.

Whatever your view, whichever campaign you favour - even if like many millions of voters you have hardly given it a second thought so far - the question on the ballot paper in less than three weeks time could change the way we choose our MPs forever.

Perhaps that is the lesson from Monday's curious double acts - that when it really matters, the traditional tribal loyalties can take second place.

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