Saturday, 30 April 2011

AV or not AV, that is not the right question

UNLIKE some other countries, Britain doesn’t do national referendums very often. In fact, the last one was 36 years ago.
I remember it clearly. Partly because I felt passionately about the issue involved. Partly because it was the cause of one of the few fallings-out I had with my girlfriend of the time.
The question we were asked on June 5, 1975 was: “Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?”
I say “we”, but actually I wasn’t asked. Not officially. My girlfriend was, though.
That was because she turned 18 just in time to vote, while I missed out by a few weeks.
She voted “no”. I would have voted “yes” – as I probably would now, though perhaps with greater reservations, if the same question were to be asked again.
In the event, I needn’t have worried. The Yes campaign triumphed by a whacking two-to-one majority.
It did so largely thanks to the support of the opposition Conservative Party under its new leader Margaret Thatcher. Which seems a tad ironic when you consider how much the Tories have beaten themselves up over Europe almost ever since.
The ruling Labour Party remained officially neutral, with most of its top brass on the Yes side despite a big conference majority the other way.
The most senior politician in the No camp was industry secretary Tony Benn, while the only national newspaper to urge a No vote was the Communist Morning Star.
Nearly 26million people cast a vote – 65 per cent of all those eligible (the same as in last year’s general election). If next Thursday’s referendum gets a turn-out half that size I’ll be surprised.
Yet the result could be just as significant for Britain’s future. In theory, at least.
If a majority votes Yes to a switch to the alternative vote, it will change the system used in all future elections. And could, therefore, change the outcome.
So how come the whole business seems such a turn-off? How come it hasn’t raised temperatures in the street the way the Common Market did in 1975?
Partly, it’s because we’re being asked the wrong question. And partly because the people running both the Yes and No campaigns seem to think we’re all half-witted.
There may be a good argument in favour of voting No. But I haven’t heard it. And it certainly isn’t in the glossy purple-and-sicky-green leaflet that dropped through my door the other day.
Its main argument seems to be that you and I shouldn’t have AV because we’re all far too thick to understand it.
Whereas it seems to me that it’s the campaign leaders themselves who are thick.
They say: “The winner should be the one that comes first.” Yet they don’t seem to have noticed how often that isn’t the case with the present system.
At present, Glenda Jackson’s Labour majority of 42 in Hampstead is worth as much as the 13,050 majority Matthew Hancock gained for the Conservatives in West Suffolk.
While the Tories govern the country after gaining little more than a third of the votes cast at the election – as, indeed, did Labour before them.
Under the present system, the government is effectively chosen by a few thousand floating voters in a handful of marginal consistuencies.
And this is supposed to be fair?
Amusingly enough, David Cameron himself was elected to the Tory leadership under a version of AV similar to the one France uses to choose its president.
If the ballot had been a straightforward first-past-the-post one, David Davis would now be prime minister. Or, perhaps, leader of the opposition.
So it’s a bit rich that Cameron should want to deny the rest of us the benefit of the system that got him where he is today.
The leaflet put out by the Yes campaign is far cheaper and shabbier (guess where the money is – just as the Tories had all the big shiny posters last year). Which may be a point in its favour.
Unfortunately, the arguments in it are if anything even stupider than those for the Noes.
A Yes vote won’t make all MPs work hard. It won’t end MPs’ jobs for life. And it won’t give us all a stronger voice, whatever Ralph in East Sussex may say about all the men in his family fighting in both world wars.
It will make the system fairer. Slightly.
It will give some people a sense that their votes aren’t wasted – as mine is always likely to be in a constituency that would elect a fish if it wore a blue rosette.
But it will also represent a sadly wasted opportunity.
Our allegedly democratic system desperately needs reform. Real reform, not petty tinkering.
Proper proportional representation, not a continuation of the Westminster village of one-constituency, one-MP.
I shall vote “Yes”, on the principle that a little shuffle in vaguely the right direction may be better than no move at all.
But I’ll do it without the passion I’d have voted with – if I’d been a few weeks older – in 1975.

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