IN THE DOCK: Chris Huhne

Watching Yes to AV and No to AV ‘debate’ the merits of the Alternative Vote has been like watching a competition to see who can patronise the electorate the most. Pictures of newborn babies without a cardiac facility! Claims that the Alternative Vote will help the BNP! Exaggerations by the NO campaign are comparable to Nazi propaganda!

If cardiac units in maternity wards are the first thing to spring to mind when you’re thinking about where to make savings, we have a much larger problem than whether we can afford electoral reform or not. And Baroness Warsi isn’t my favourite friend, but Goebbels? Seriously? But my favourite patronising argument so far is being told “if you like Nick Clegg then vote Yes to AV” by Louise Bagshawe on Have I Got News for You. Do the Conservatives really think they are particularly popular right now? Liberal Democrat voters are betrayed by the Nick Clegg, and obviously they don’t feel betrayed by David Cameron, so the public expressions of outrage are different. But that doesn’t mean they are going to side with the Conservatives against the Liberal Democrats! Remember: voting No to AV is not so much a kick to Nick Clegg as it is an enormous gift to David Cameron. Is the Yes campaign really confident enough in Cameron’s job approval right now to make the debate this personal? Why would anyone be annoyed at Nick Clegg, but not at David Cameron?

Either way, our politicians need to consider that perhaps all this name-calling and armpit-scratching (whilst telling us all that we’re much too dumb to understand electoral reform) is why so many people are saying they won’t bother to walk the five minutes to their local polling station to tick one box or another. In a recent poll by independent polling company mass1 (published by Unite), the British people named money worries, cuts to NHS and council services, and rising cost of living as their top three concerns, with coalition government coming eighth and immigration coming tenth. Electoral reform did not feature as a top concern.

So regardless of how genuine or otherwise their intentions about reforming our system, from a strictly public relations perspective, why can’t the Liberal Democrats see how this looks? By choosing to make a big stink about electoral reform rather than, say, housing (the sixth biggest concern for Brits), surely they risk looking rather more concerned with their own parliamentary circle jerks than they are in actually running the country?

But it’s not just Chris Huhne’s choice of issue that could be seen as a potential misjudgement. His method of retaliation seems inappropriate, too.

I mean, if you threatened your colleague – let alone your boss – with legal action, would you really show up on Monday morning with a smile and a cup of coffee? And if you threatened legal action over something which is, truth be told, common practice in your line of work (apologies to anyone who thinks that exaggerating, manipulating figures and frightening people isn’t commonplace in politics, but… ), how would that be seen in your workplace?

Chris Huhne’s decision to threaten legal action over ‘lies’ does more than highlight cracks in coalition relations. Taking people to court is what the local councils do to Michael Gove; what BPAS do to the Department of Health. It’s what foster care hopefuls do to their local council and it’s what celebrities do when their phone is hacked by News International. It’s not what cabinet colleagues, responsible for actually making the laws of the land themselves, supposedly bound by collective ministerial responsibility, do to each other when they think they’ve been politically mistreated.

It’s not that I’m a fan of all the backbiting and lying and slithering around that goes on in politics. It’s just that the Lib Dems seem to be stamping their feet and telling daddy that Sayeeda made up a lie, rather than correcting any misinformation through grown-up debate. Okay, they’re not doing that, exactly: but that’s how it looks to much of the electorate.

Chris Huhne thinks he’s making himself look like a strong leader, not afraid to challenge the Tories on an issue of national importance. But to an awful lot of people, he’s making himself look like a child in an adult’s job; someone who feels safer outside of the establishment than as part of it; someone who is taking legal action over a technicality arising during a debate about an issue that they don’t much care about in the first place. And Chris Huhne really needs to decide if that’s how he wants his party to appear. Because if the antagonistic tactics perpetuated by both sides of the AV campaign precipitate an early general election as some are predicting, the Lib Dems’ current poll ratings coupled with their lack of money suggests they might well be back on the outside of the establishment looking in again if they’re not careful – and for quite a long time, as well.


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