The Elections, Parties and Opinion Polls (EPOP) group organised a panel on the AV referendum at the Political Studies Assocciation (PSA) conference this week. Although it occupied the graveyard slot in the conference it attracted a good attendance and provoked some lively discussion. But perhaps that says something about the geekiness of political scientists as one can hardly imagine that outside on a warm afternoon in West London people were discussing AV as they sipped a coffee or enjoyed an early pint before the holiday weekend.
It was agreed that the debate had often been simplistic, misleading and irrelevant, but then, as someone remarked, that is true of many political debates. It looks likely that the referendum will be defeated on a low turnout (especially in London where there are no other elections).
British people are relatively conservative and tend to favour the status quo. They have been told that AV would be complicated and expensive, although, of course, any form of democracy costs money. The poll evidence suggests that older voters are more opposed and they are more likely to turn out and vote.
Given that AV is really a modified form of first-past-the post, what would be the consequences of either a win or a defeat for PR? Some think that a win would not be what some have called a slippery slope to PR, but would end the debate. Voters would be coralled into two voting camps, leading to less representation of the diversity of the electorate. What seems more likely is that a defeat would end the PR debate as a live item for some time to come. But it has always been a debate among the political class anyway.
What seems certain is that variants of PR will remain where they are embedded in 'secondary elections' for the devolved assemblies, the European Parliament and the London assembly and mayoral elections. The defeat of the referedum might give an impetus to Lords reform as a sop to Nick Clegg. A largely elected upper house would use some form of PR, although when this prospect was mentioned a life peer in the audience went slighty green around the gills.