Matthew Flinders: Not waving but drowning... Mr Clegg in dangerous waters

BY staking his reputation and leadership on a referendum on electoral reform for the House of Commons, Nick Clegg risks appearing out of touch and out of step with the rest of Britain.

Not Waving but Drowning is a poem by Stevie Smith that describes a man whose distressed thrashing in the sea causes onlookers to simply smile and wave back, instead of attempting to save him. Why does this poem come to mind every time I hear about Nick Clegg's plans to hold a poll on voting reform next May?

The referendum may well be his party's prize for joining the Con-Dem coalition – an unfortunate abbreviation if there ever was one – but I wonder if by cashing it in so early, Mr Clegg will look out of touch and self-interested.

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Out of touch in the sense that electoral reform, like most constitutional issues, remains a concern for a small political and intellectual elite but not among the unemployed of Scarborough or the working folk of Doncaster (or vice versa). Electoral reform is simply not a priority for the general public.

I'm not arguing that electoral reform might not have some benefits; in the wake of the MPs' expenses scandal any measure that can play a role in narrowing the between the governors and the governed is worth considering.

However, the pubic are passive-cynical not active-cynical: they are willing to march in the streets to save foxes, for the right to kill foxes but only very rarely to demand constitutional change or democratic renewal. My argument is therefore not with electoral reform – even though it will do nothing to create more probity in the House of Commons or even make the voting system much fairer – but with the timing and motivation of Mr Clegg.

For most people the short and medium term priority is about keeping their job, paying their mortgage, feeding the children and covering the monthly bills. Most politicians keep repeating the mantra of achieving "more for less" within the public sector in an attempt to control the 155bn deficit, whereas Mr Clegg seems obsessed with a peripheral issue that will have very little impact, if any, on the day-to-day lives of most people.

Within Whitehall and Westminster everyone knows this is a time for stability, direction and authoritative leadership; beyond SW1 most people accept that the age of austerity demands hard decisions and some social groups will lose more than others. The public do not want to be "empowered" as the Lib Dems weakly claim – they want politicians with the moral integrity and the stature to take tough decisions. Injecting electoral reform into this context risks muddying the waters and creating an unnecessary distraction from the serious business of government.

Mr Clegg is therefore leading his party into unchartered and potentially risky political waters. Although the prospect of returning more MPs to Westminster through huge numbers of second preference votes is obviously attractive for the Lib Dems, it is also the problem. Like a relative who asks about the will before the deceased is even buried (or even cold) the party risks being portrayed by the Opposition, and even by some Conservative members of the coalition, as acting in its own interests rather than those of the country.

The public are not stupid. They realise a political stunt when they see it and they may well punish the Lib Dems severely next May. The referendum is therefore a high-risk, even suicidal strategy. Suicidal in the sense that a "No" vote would be cataclysmic for a party that is already haemorrhaging members and is likely to bear the brunt of public resentment over future cuts.

Added to this is the fact that Cameron has already come out against changing the electoral system, and that a "Yes" vote is likely to involve a double-threshold, based on turnout and geographical spread, and the chances of getting support for the Alternative Vote appear slim.

If Mr Clegg senses that a growing proportion of the public sees him as "in office, but not in power" – which I sense is the real motivation for forcing his hand sooner rather than later – then he has selected a curious way to prove his mettle. The referendum on electoral reform is more than his party's prize for forming a coalition: it is the glue that holds the coalition together. The hung Parliament is working, so far. It has defied the sceptics who said the tribal nature of political parties would paralyse the coalition within weeks. Mr Clegg therefore risks not only leading the Lib Dems along a path of self-destruction but also risks bringing down the Government at exactly the point when the reverberations from the global financial crisis demand political stability.

In opposition Nick Clegg described the alternative vote as a "miserable little compromise" but now appears willing to stake his political career on the belief that the public will support it. Now, why is it that Not Waving, but Drowning comes into my head every time I think of him?