I'm hoping that one day, we will look back at the upcoming alternative vote referendum as the lowest point in British politics because -- short of a coup -- it can't get much worse.
In a liberal democracy, we only have one chance to cast our vote in five years. How we express our choice and how that choice pans out for us is key to our civilian life. So a referendum on electoral reform should surely be a showstopper -- for which everything else is put aside? Instead, there is widespread apathy, bewilderment and irritation.
Here, [without much caricature], is how the debate presents itself across our media. Lesson One: The current system, called First Past the Post is how most everyday elections are carried out: one person, one vote, the person with the most votes in a constitu ency wins. For a number of reasons -- which you don't have to bother your little head about -- this system can create grossly distorted results at the national level. The No campaign describes this as a "fair fight".
Lesson Two: AV -- Alternative Vote -- is another system proposed by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg as the price for his party to join the Conservative Party in a coalition government. (No one knows why AV became a bargaining tool as the demand from his own party was for a proportional system, which AV is not. That remains a mystery).
To continue: AV means you can have more than one vote if you want. That may seem undemocratic but, we promise, it isn't. Again, not everyone understands why or how, but that doesn't matter -- because, um, some people do. Obviously they are the clever ones -- so do not let on that you don't.
Lesson Three: The results with AV are difficult to predict, but the upshot is that in your home town, more than 50% of the voters will have a leader they don't mind much, rather than any group under 50% having a leader they actually chose to run the country. If that means you might end up with Nick Clegg (popularity rating - 34% ) as prime minister instead of David Cameron (popularity rating + 47%) next time, it may not seem fair, but -- believe us -- it is.
Both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party are split on the vote. Some will use a No Vote simply to humiliate Nick Clegg. Meanwhile, the Labour Party has said the a No Vote could mean the end of the Labour Party. Even so, less than half the party are voting Yes.
Now that is all crystal clear, dear voter, you choose.
If your response to the fact that some find AV difficult to understand is to sniff and say that you understand it, can you really call yourself a democrat? Joking aside, it is not enough for the political classes to understand their own arguments -- everyone has to. Britain is not its politicians, Britain is its people.
I think the final straw came for me when a magazine journalist tweeted his findings that women found AV more difficult to understand than men. Not only did his contempt for 51% of the nation trouble me, but, in truth, if women find AV hard to understand then it must be flawed or -- like the offside rule in football -- only for those that give a damn.
Don't get me wrong: like many others on the centre left of UK politics, I have been wanting a more proportional system of representation for many years. Not because it is fair but because it would bring more diversity to our politics and usher in more change. I'm tired of the dinosaurs in politics and am looking for a shake-up. Change was not in the interests of either of the dominant parties in the past which is why Labour did not pursue it while they were in power. So for Labour to expect its members to vote Yes now is confusing and a sign of fear rather than confidence -- never very attractive.
The conservatives appeal to logic however, is even more mind-bending because they completely ignore the difference between local representation and national. Our country is not divided into equal constituencies, with the same number of people and square footage of land in each. Some areas have 5,000 people per square mile, some 500. Resources are distributed unevenly. Fairness has little to do with it and I suspect that most people understand that without the need for a higher intellect.
The simple number of votes it takes to get a Tory elected in one area is not the same as the votes it will take in another simply because of the variation in population density within the boundaries that are set. That does not make it either fair or unfair, but it does make each constituency different and hence difficult to scale up to a national proportionality.
If we did want a simple national result based on one person one vote, we should ask the people to vote for a prime minister or president, irrespective of their civic boundaries. Ironically, proper fairness would deliver the opposite of what Cameron wants -- a center left coalition.
Given that we are unlikely to adopt such a radical restructuring of the system, we should be aiming to re-confirm the relationship between the voters and their constituency MP as the one which expresses their democratic rights. We the people of Keighley have a similar say in Parliament as they the people of Windsor. Numbers gathering around the area are irrelevant, they share a location and a pot of money. It is part of a workable system, but not enough.
Surely we can present the attractions of proportionality more honestly, as a way to express the diversity of the population in government. Different styles of popular government should get a look in. However, different styles of leaders should also be considered on that basis - men and women, old and young, proportionality of cultures? And how about this one -- income diversity? Isn't it time we acknowledged the difference in outlook and vision between the privileged and the under-privileged?
Am I being overly simplistic when I claim that what people want is to be able to elect their leader -- the person who will represent them in Parliament -- but also see a fair representation of the the country's parties in national government? AV however, does not deliver either of these two straightforward democratic requirements or ideals. Instead it distorts the relationship between the voter and his or her constituency in favour of a party political view of the nation.
By making the vote about fairness for the parties rather than fairness for the people, both the Yes and No camps have lost the interest -- and earned the distrust -- of the British voters.
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