Slo-mo Revolutions

It is 1997 all over again for supporters of electoral reform. This is not because advocates of the Alternative Vote (AV) gyrate with the excitement that Labour enthusiasts felt as Tony Blair led them towards Downing Street.

Rather, they are like those who campaigned in 1997 for the modestly conceived Welsh Assembly in the hope that if we crossed one rubicon we might one day vote for something bolder – and on March 3 there is a good chance this will happen.

But even if there is a Yes vote, Welsh AMs will have far less freedom to make laws than their counterparts in Northern Ireland and Scotland; those who want a truly federal Britain face decades of more campaigning.

Daily politics may be dominated by the 24-hour news cycle and the near-annual cycle of council, regional and national elections, but anyone who wants to achieve momentous change has to play a very long game.

The decision of Nick Clegg to take the Liberal Democrats into a coalition with the Conservatives last year with the promise of a referendum on AV was a rejection of dreams of a “big bang” moment of constitutional change. Many who cherish the Single Transferable Vote (STV) as the best electoral method will try to muster enthusiasm for AV and urge their children to continue the battle for a truly proportional election system.

Last May, days after the election, the Electoral Reform Society admitted AV “would prove a very modest reform”. The group calculated AV would have given Labour 25 seats (-1), the Conservatives six (-2), the Lib Dems six (+3) and Plaid would have held steady on three.

In contrast, STV could have given Labour 16 and put the Conservatives and Lib Dems each on 10 and bumped Plaid up to four.

This type of radical change is as likely in the near future as it is that Wales will have a Parliament responsible for every aspect of the criminal justice system and tax-varying powers.

It is not impossible that UK politics will rediscover its appetite for sudden transformation. The Conservatives’ remodelling of the NHS in England goes well beyond tinkering and Aneurin Bevan’s post-war pioneering of social housing and the health service was little short of revolutionary.

The generation of future politicians who have cut their teeth in the student protests and seen the revolution of Tahrir Square may be less patient than today’s legislators.

But electoral reformers should draw comfort from Wales where dogged dreamers have achieved real cultural change by cementing the Assembly into national life. It was the odd pup in the devolution pack, but it has at last been embraced.

Slow-motion revolutions still count.

A Thursday column