I read somewhere (Facebook I think) that no decent argument has been made either for the Alternative Vote (AV) or for sticking with first-past-the-post. Somewhere else (Twitter probably) I read that our best option in the May 5 referendum might be to vote Don’t Know while putting Yes as a second choice. The latter was meant as a joke (well I think it was; it came from 10 O’Clock Live, how could I tell?) but it cuts seriously to the heart of the choice we face if we’re even thinking about taking part (which I guess a lot of people are not).
Before I get into the meat of this let’s deal with that last bit as it’s the first problem we have to deal with. Some Members of the House of Lords attempted to set a 40% participation threshold so that any vote to switch to AV would not be binding with any lower turnout. The government were probably in two minds about this (more and more I’m reminded of Zaphod Beeblebrox*) since some are in favour of a move to AV and others wish to stick with what we’ve got. A 40% threshold would give those in favour a sort of legitimacy if achieved whilst for the Nos it would provide a useful barrier to change. But it doesn’t matter because the Lords eventually gave up on it and bowed to the view of the Commons that there should be no turnout threshold.
Referenda in the UK have a fairly checkered history. The Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum of 1973 achieved a turnout of 58.1% which you might think not bad until you note that the result went 98.9% in favour of ‘wanting Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom’ and know that Catholics boycotted the poll en masse. The first one I remember was the United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum of 1975 which even to a nine year old seemed to be more about asking the public to determine the outcome of an internal dispute within the Labour Party than asking them to determine the UK’s place in our bit of the world. The Scottish and Welsh devolution referenda were equally tricksy and this time around too it’s an issue that divides parties and creates cross-party allegiances. It’s not a party political issue, it’s much more philosophical than that.
This time if three people bother to vote, whichever way two of them lean will determine how our electoral system will work in the future. I’m sure it will be more than three but I doubt it will hit 40%. We’ve a rash of local and Mayoral elections to get people into the Polling Station where they will, perhaps for the very first time, give some thought to which way to cast their AV vote. Many do have firm (and fixed) views on this subject but given the absence of any enthusiasm for the contest, even at this relatively late stage, among lots of people I come across I think many will cast their vote almost at random, perhaps on a whim, possibly straight into the bin.
With just three weeks to go, as the Yes / No campaigns get into full swing maybe now is the time to get a conversation going, even if it’s a pretty dry and dull conversation, in the hope that if casting a vote on May 5 we will have tested our perspective on friends and colleagues.
At least we each need to work out where we stand on the issue ourselves.
For me it’s a No.
AV is the poor relation of the electoral reform that I’ve wasted my vote on for almost twenty years (ever since Tony Blair took over the Labour Party; religious fundamentalist? No thanks). I’ve only lived in safe seats (red ones and blue ones) and I’ve always cast my ballot paper onto the pile of Lib Dem, Green or monster raving other votes that have counted for nothing in the belief that the height of that pile has always been the strongest case for electoral reform.
Of course that strategy back-fired this time around for many of the people adopting it over the years (probably in the process kidding some as to the depth of their support, or lack of it – but they know now don’t they) though not for me as I was overseas and didn’t get my Postal Vote through in time to waste it.
It double back-fired if two decades of wasting votes on principle only gets us the limp reform that is AV and probably puts a halt to real reform for a generation or more. Never again.
AV is not a proportional representation solution. It’s a second, third or fourth best solution. It encourages parties to moderate their policies towards the middle ground and to appeal to each others’ voters in the hope of grabbing their second preference. It squeezes out the radical policy and the radical politicians, it delays reform and denies reformers. Who wants an MP elected only because UKIP or BNP voters thought them the next best thing? Who wants a system that makes your sixth preference eventually as valuable as my first? A system that shifts effective disenfranchisement from the supporters of minority parties to the supporters of majority parties wherever they can be sure of 40% but not 50% support? Moving to AV would be a perverse, trousers-at-half-mast reform that would most likely over time deliver insipid coalition politicians and insipid coalition governments. Where’s the merit in that?
A truly proportional system (perhaps via Single Transferable Vote, perhaps not, perhaps maintaining a geographical connection, perhaps not : debates for another day) brings its own challenges of course and almost guarantees coalition governments in perpetuity but it encourages the maverick, the individual, the radical and the reformer. It encourages parties to be distinctive. It’s the electoral reform goal that I’ve been seeking and that many of my friends seek too. Now some of them say, not surprisingly because it has a sense of logic, that a move to AV is at least a step in the right direction. I think it’s a step in the wrong direction. It will result in those who oppose proper reform insisting that we’ve had our turn, that it’s time to shut up. We’ll be back (almost) at square one. I think it’s like aspiring to a state of wedded bliss and so marrying the first suitor to propose rather than waiting for your true love. The need to divorce ourselves from AV with all the difficulties and new arguments that will involve will be a significant block to progress towards the real proportional representation that, in our hearts, we truly seek.
We’re only offered a limited choice. ‘Don’t Know’, ‘Maybe But’ and ‘So Long As It Leads To Real Electoral Reform’ are not options on offer. So I’m voting No.
* Two-headed, three-armed Zaphod Beeblebrox (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams) is clever, imaginative, untrustworthy, extrovert, hedonistic and irresponsible, self-centred almost to the point of solipsism, and often extremely insensitive to the feelings of those around him – “nothing you couldn’t have guessed”. He’s always busy carrying out some grand scheme yet having no clue as to what it is and unable to do anything but follow the path that he laid out for himself. He is nevertheless quite charismatic which means others are often willing to ignore his flaws.