Sunday, 3 April 2011

Why the AV Referendum matters

I noticed that Conservative blogger Iain Dale has drawn attention to a piece in today's Independent on Sunday which reports on the role BNP leader Nick Griffin is now inadvertently playing in the "Yes to AV" campaign's advertising.

Dale considers this "dirty tactics" and labels those behind the Yes campaign "hypocrites". I'll come onto hypocrites in a minute, but first let's deal with the "dirty campaigning" accusation.

What has happened here is that the "Yes" camp have been eager to counter the false arguments being circulated bu the "No" campaign that the introduction of AV would be good news for the likes of the BNP. It's the kind of argument such reactionaries always use against progressive change; that someone unsavoury will benefit. This is not only inaccurate, but it seems Mr Griffin is actually opposed to a change in the voting system, something which "Yes" supporters are obviously keen to play up. Dirty tactics? I think not, especially when compared with the scaremongering that claimed Griffin as a reason not to vote "yes" in the first instance.

However, in regards the tactics it may have been better for a politician free launch to be...well, just that. I'm not thrilled with the attention this is giving Griffin's party ahead of local elections in England. Neither do I want fear to be the deciding factor in determining voting intention. It's not a question of whether the "Yes" campaign's tactics are "dirty" but whether we really want Nick Griffin and David Cameron (who labelled AV "crazy", something eagerly picked up on by the "Yes" camp) to be the main arguments for change.

Being Mothers' Day, I talked to my mum today who asked me what the referendum is actually about. I explained the different voting systems, underlining that "AV is a preferential rather than a proportional voting system". When spoken to like an intelligent human being, it was quite clear that she now understood the issue at the heart of the matter and has made up her mind to vote a particular way. I know that she (like many others) simply wants to be informed about the choice she's being presented with. She doesn't want a personality focused referendum. And she certainly doesn't want to be manipulated into voting one way or the other through fear.

This is why both campaigns must focus on presenting their arguments either for or against change in an honest way. Voters need to be engaged with rather than used for political purposes. What's more, let's not forget that this referendum actually matters. It will lead to either consolidation of the status quo and the unfairness of First Past the Post or the most radical change of the British voting system since, well...since women were allowed to vote in 1928.

In Scotland voters have been entrusted with alternative voting systems and we've shown that they work. What's more, we seem to like them. Aside from the shambles with the electronic machines in 2007, there haven't been any real problems with the actual system of STV used in local elections. People seem to understand it, and also appear to appreciate the more politically diverse councils that arise from it. Similarly, since 1999 Scots have been able to vote for regional MSPs via the Additional Member System which delivers a more proportional parliament, greater electoral opportunity for Greens and smaller parties and a large number of Tory MSPs (every cloud has a silver lining). We like our improved democracy. So do voters in Northern Ireland, who use STV for their elections to Stormont. The argument that people simply get confused is not only patronising but woefully mistaken.

The experience of elections to the devolved assemblies is the best possible advertisement against FPTP. We should forget Nick Griffin and David Cameron and instead focus on how well democracy can work under systems other than FPTP. There is such a strong evidence base that sometimes it is truly amazing that the "No" campaign continue to persist in their unevidenced and misleading claims.

The AV referendum matters because this may be the only chance we have in our lifetimes to influence the way in which Parliament is elected. Cynics often comment that voting accomplishes nothing, that "if it made any difference, they'd ban it". Here is a chance to change that and to move away from sterile two-party politics. Here is a rare opportunity to influence the way democracy works, to ensure greater parliamentary accountability and eradicate negative "tactical voting".

There are many reasons why I personally feel political reform is desirable. Most of these stem from my wish for a more representative democracy. I am sure the majority of British voters think the same way, because they can see the limitations of FPTP. That does not mean they will automatically support AV, or necessarily vote "Yes" on May 5th, but it does mean that many people are tired of a system that is increasingly seen as outdated and corrupt. No-one appreciates electoral "contests" that see the same party's candidate returned for generation after generation. People want a more transparent and accountable parliament and while not everyone gets passionate about the merits of one voting system over another, there is a clear view among the public that British democracy is not all it could be.

This is why the referendum is important. A "Yes" vote will guarantee a small but significant change in the way we elect our MPs. But more significantly, it will mean that the momentum will be behind change. It will not be possible for future governments to deny electoral reform on the basis that the public have already democratically expressed their support for First Past the Post.

There is clearly a lot at stake in this referendum. In one respect, it is far more important that the various local and national elections taking place on the same day. If you don't get the councillor, MSP or first minister you want you can change that in four years' time. But if the opportunity for electoral reform is wasted, it will be gone for much longer - possibly for generations.

Former Lib Dem MP David Alton asserts that "rejecting AV will make bringing in real reform more likely. If the wrong change is made now, it will be years before the debate will be reopened." I agree with him on his last point, which is why the right decision must be made now. However, I really don't understand why he feels that rejecting AV will bring in better reforms such as STV. Can you really see David Cameron, having won the argument to retain FPTP, agreeing to even more radical reforms than an AV referendum he was never keen to offer?

There are some who would like to make the AV referendum a referendum on Nick Clegg. Elections are there to allow voters to express their anger at political leaders but this referendum is not about Nick Clegg: it's about the future of British democracy. In any case, those whose primary anger with the Lib Dem leader is his willingness to work with the Conservatives would be ill-advised to give Cameron exactly what he wants. Voting with the Tories on the basis of being opposed to them really is a very contradictory position to take.

In any case, this is more than a referendum on AV. It's actually a referendum on the public's confidence in First Past the Post. Granted, the referendum question does not state this explicitly. But what the question is actually asking is whether the public have enough faith in the current deficient system to keep it over a more preferential system of voting. My own suspicion is that while cautious about change, the public are not so enamoured with the current system as most members of David Cameron's party.

Finally, let's all remember why we're having this referendum at all. I really do like to credit my political opponents where necessary, so here goes: THANK YOU LABOUR! Without them, none of this would be happening.

Confused? Well, Labour were the only party committed to an AV referendum at the General Election. The Tories wanted the status quo, the Lib Dems wanted full STV. It was Gordon Brown's party - and only Gordon Brown's party - that not only proposed AV but were actually agreed in principle to putting it to the public in a referendum.

During coalition talks it was only when the Lib Dems talked to Labour that Cameron's previously obstinate position on the issue softened. He could see that Clegg couldn't sell the deal to the party unless there was some agreement of changing the electoral system. He could also see the Lib Dems talking to Brown and his chances of moving into number 10 diminishing. It was then he agreed to offer the Lib Dems exactly what the Labour Party had committed themselves to - and the very minimum compromise the Lib Dems would accept. And so, in all honesty, the architects of the AV referendum were the Labour Party's manifesto authors. You'd think they would be delighted at how their own policy has been ironically implemented by two parties who were opposed to it!

Many criticise Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats for their "u-turns" but here is an about-turn so huge in its scale as to beggar belief. To see hundreds of Labour MPs who were last year standing on a manifesto platform of a referendum to only months later cynically oppose that referendum for short-term political advantage is dishonest and - to use that Iain Dale quote - "hypocritical".

however, it is heartening to see several Labour figures such as Stephen Twigg MP and Ed Miliband himself standing by their manifesto commitments and supporting a change to AV. Presumably they recognise the enormous opportunity that will be lost if they allow party politicisation of the debate to cloud the public's judgement. If this is so, they should be commended.

If you genuinely believe that FPTP is the system that best helps shape the kind of democracy you want to live in, then by all means vote "No" on May 5th. If not, then please vote "Yes". If there's one thing we need it's a change in how our political system works. Make your vote count and make it happen!

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