Feature: The Lib Dems’ AV referendum hangover

Liberal Democrats barely uttered a word about the failed electoral reform referendum. But that doesn't mean it wasn't on their minds in Birmingham.

By Alex Stevenson

Since time immemorial it has been impossible to attend a Liberal Democrat party conference without someone, somewhere, embarking in a lengthy tirade against the voting system.

For years the party has been worked up about the shortcomings of first-past-the-post, which consistently returns fewer Lib Dem MPs to parliament than would be the case under proportional representation (PR).

A little over four months the party's activists got what they had craved for years: an electoral reform referendum. It went badly. As readers of politics.co.uk will no doubt remember, voters rejected a shift to the alternative vote system by a ratio of two to one.

This explains why, this year at the Lib Dems' autumn gathering in Birmingham, the most reliable set of moaners about the voting system were strangely silent on their pet subject.

Party president Tim Farron touched on the issue in his speech on Sunday. His tone was one of utter frustration.

"The AV referendum is salutary," he told gloomy delegates.

"It reminds us what we are up against in general. A Tory party owned and directed by the impossibly rich, a Labour party which may be led by a progressive but which is owned by the forces of conservatism and a media owned by a handful of powerful individuals with antidemocratic axes that they grind very effectively."

The issue will return, he pledged; but for this year, at least, it has been quietly shelved.

Party activists, when asked about the reform, only open up so far.

"It happened, we've moved on," said Nicola Hodge, a grassroots party member from Telford. "It was a blow, it would have been progress to me."

Peter Chapman, from Beaconsfield, agreed that it wasn't being talked about much. "That's maybe because we've put it behind us, or maybe we decided 'it's not the most important thing in the world'," he suggested. In his county of Buckinghamshire all five seats return Tory MPs, even though David Cameron's party only get 40% of the vote.

Chris Marriage, from Newbury, said the two-to-one ratio was "fairly overwhelming". But he was confident the Lib Dems' constitutional tinkering is not yet over. "It might have been kicked into the long grass, but it will return," he promised. Nicola Hodge said that it wasn't PR, the Lib Dems' preferred voting system, anyway. "It's not going to go away," she said confidently.

That optimism is not yet sufficiently strong to break through the cloud of despondency still hanging over the Lib Dems in the wake of the failed AV campaign. Whether an activist or a Cabinet minister, the view is the same.

In a fringe meeting hosted by the Electoral Reform Society, Chris Huhne made clear he believed the basic strategy of the Yes campaign was misguided. "The problem that we were attempting to solve was not always immediately apparent to the voters," he said.

Or, as Chris Marriage put it: "The man on the Clapham omnibus isn't interested in electoral reform."We thought we could get them interested. But we didn't."

A "post-mortem", as Huhne demanded, will take place in the next couple of months. This will help lay Lib Dems' frustrations to rest.

Despite the misery, or perhaps because of it, electoral reform simply hasn't been on the agenda this week.

In a less public gathering than the conference floor, party whip Stephen Gilbert gave an insight into the silence.

"One of the traditional failures of our party is to focus publicly on the niche issues that concern us and excite us and fail to engage the public on issues that concern them," he told activists at a ministerial briefing.

"If we were to be seen to making a major play of it so soon after comprehensively losing a referendum, we wouldn't quite be chiming the right mood with the public."

That's the real reason for their silence. And it's a sensible one, too. But eventually, sooner rather than later, the Lib Dems will be demanding answers.

"Yes campaign – what yes campaign?" as Gilbert put it.

"I think we underperformed dramatically." And from that, as the murmurs from the assembled delegates showed, a reckoning will be demanded.