For the casual observer, the most noticeable image of the campaign against the Alternative Vote system has been the striking billboard ad suggesting that the “costly” system will mean less money for maternity wards.
The idea of judging democratic institutions on the basis of cost is somewhat flawed: on that basis, we could scrap elections altogether and spend the money we’d save on welfare.
The “yes” brigade, meanwhile, are attempting to detoxify their brand by shunning Nick Clegg. But they have failed to convince that a “yes” vote could be somehow divorced from a vindication of the Liberal Democrats’ decision to enter into coalition with the Conservatives last May.
This was, of course, the deal which saw Nick Clegg give the thumbs-up to billions of pounds worth of cuts he had campaigned against the week before.
Tuition fees will always be the embodiment of the broken promise. Faced with a similar situation a few months ago, the Irish Labour party refused to back down over free education. Clegg and his party also had the opportunity to stand up for the education maintenance allowance, the NHS and investment in schools. But instead the party chose to jettison almost everything bar their pet project of electoral reform.
If Britain approves this self-interested bid on May 5th, it will be a slap in the face to the thousands of students, activists and public sector workers who have demonstrated for this government to keep the promises it made to the electorate last year – and that includes the Tories as well, who have, bizarrely, also justified decisions on the basis that “no party won the election”.
The Alternative Vote is also nobody’s preferred option – indeed, bar parliamentarians in the negotiating room, very few have ever argued for it. In 1999, the Jenkins Commission into voting systems found it had the potential to produce less proportional outcomes than first past the post.
A debate about electoral reform would only be healthy for democracy in Britain, but when the only other option on offer is, in Nick Clegg’s own words, a “miserable little compromise” and not proportional representation, there’s no room for proper debate at all. The “yes” campaign has branded itself “Yes to Fairer Votes”, reinforcing the perception among the general public that the Alternative Vote is a proportional system. Opinion polls have shown that when the preferential system is properly explained, the public is less likely to back it.
It would be a misjudgement to vote “no” in any referendum in protest at unrelated government policies. But a protest vote at the shoddy betrayal of the electorate last May by the back-room coalition deal between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, and, indeed, against anything of its kind in the future, is something else, and entirely legitimate.
Switching to AV could easily allow this culture to continue: if the Tories encourage voters to second preference the Lib Dems and vice versa, Coalition MPs could escape the anger of the electorate through vote transfers after their bedfellows are eliminated.
The government has not allowed us to have a proper debate on electoral reform. Instead, we are faced with a choice between endorsing a philosophy of politicians’ back-room ploys or keeping our imperfect but practical system, and protesting against the betrayal of young people and the vulnerable.
If you read my piece on AV on this blog a couple of weeks ago, some of the above arguments may be familiar. But they’re better expressed here – and, I hope, in better prose. The previous piece presumed readers knew a good deal about AV already – the above one is more my own summary of where the campaign has taken us so far. And why I’m STILL, despite the abhorrent excesses of the No to AV campaign, voting NO.