FIRST it was wedding bells that drowned out campaigning for tomorrow’s referendum – and then it was Osama bin Laden’s death. But the vote on whether to change our voting system is nevertheless a hugely important moment for Britain’s democracy. We urge all of you who care about the way we are governed to take part, to cast your vote – and to vote No.
The version of the Alternative Vote (AV) system on offer would make coalition governments more likely, would incentivise MPs to move to the centre (as they pander for second and third preferences) and would increase the power of insiders and of the political establishment. It would do all of this without making MPs work any harder or the system any fairer: AV is entirely different from a proportional representation (PR) scheme of the sort long advocated by many reformers. In fact, AV would have produced even more disproportionate results in three out of the past four general elections, magnifying defeats and exaggerating victories. Because some voters would back just one candidate while others would indicate several preferences, some people would have a greater voice than others, a deeply disturbing prospect. Most important of all, while an AV system ought not in theory to be too complex to understand, in practice it would baffle millions of voters – and even many so-called experts don’t fully understand it.
The sorry truth about AV is that even its supposed supporters don’t really want it. Nick Clegg used to call it a “miserable little compromise” and Chris Huhne once likened it to “an ill-fitting corset attempting to squeeze all the diverse strands of opinion in our society into an inappropriate and deeply uncomfortable shape.” The 1998 Commission on Voting Reform chaired by Roy Jenkins, another Lib Dem, rightly argued that AV would be “unacceptably unfair”, “less proportional” and “disturbingly unpredictable”. This is one reason why only three countries – Fiji, Australia, and Papua New Guinea – use AV for their national parliament – and no national legislature uses the “optional preference” version proposed in the UK.
This is not to say the current electoral system is perfect. There is a strong case for radical constitutional reform. We should stop the ridiculous system whereby Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs vote on English issues, while English MPs have no say on most Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish policies. England needs to have the same rights as the other UK nations. We need to rethink local government: the system is broken, partly because councils don’t have to raise locally all the cash they spend. Rather than wasting time and money arguing about whether to introduce a voting system nobody really wants, we should be debating what our relationship with Brussels should be. Another interesting reform would be to introduce a right of recall for MPs – if enough voters sign a petition, a by-election would be held. There is also a strong case for bottom-up referenda, also triggered by petitions. There could be lots of useful changes – but adopting an eccentric voting system that even its supporters hate is not the way to go, especially at a time when the nation faces far more important economic challenges.
Polls suggest that the No side is in the lead but mass apathy means that there is a real risk of the Yes camp winning on a derisory turnout. So please make use of your democratic rights tomorrow – and vote No.
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