Wednesday, 27 April 2011

To AV or not to AV, that is the question!

On the fifth of May the UK goes to the polls once again, not only to elect our representatives into local or devolved government positions, but also to chose between the Alternative Voting system (AV) where voters rank the candidates in order of preference and if no overall winner emerges second and then third choices come into play, and the First Past the Post voting system (FPTP) which we currently use. This is only the second UK wide referendum in British history, and the first ever where the result will be legally binding rather than just consultative, as with the 1975 referendum on Britain's continued involvement in the European Economic Community.

So in that sense at least, it is a truly significant event in the history of our democracy.

We should all be very excited.


I have to admit to being slightly perplexed on this one myself. It has taken me this long to form any kind of a clear opinion on it at all, and unfortunately, it isn't a particularly good opinion.

The referendum came about as part of the negotiations between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats last May, as they were coming together to form the coalition government. The Liberal Democrats are very much in favour of electoral reform and wanted a change to Proportional Representation (PR), a third voting system where seats in parliament are allocated to parties more accurately according to the national share of the vote. The Conservatives, virtually by definition, are fundamentally opposed to electoral reform so anything as radical as a change to PR did not even get a look in, but they did need to offer something to get the liberal Democrats into bed with them - considering that Conservatives and Liberals are not supposed to be natural allies, remember they are the natural descendant of the two sides which fought each other in England's civil war.

After what I imagine must have been a great deal of fairly sleazy political solicitation, they settled on AV, which Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is quoted as calling "a miserable little compromise". A phrase that pretty much sums up the Liberal Democrats whole position within the coalition government if you ask me, miserable little compromises seem to be fine so long as they garner the Lib Dems a little more political power, but I digress...

So the Conservatives are completely opposed to AV, perhaps because they perceive they will lose seats because of it, and the Liberal Democrats who stand to gain the most from the introduction of AV are of course extremely enthusiastic. Labour have no official position with MPs free to vote as they please, although party leader Ed Milliband is in favour of AV there is also the fear that constituency boundary changes contained within the referendum bill will favour the Conservatives, and amount to gerrymandering. Other key Labour party figures supporting a Yes vote include Alan Johnson, Peter Hain, Hilary Benn, Sadiq Khan, Tessa Jowell, Alistair Darling, Diane Abbot, Lord Mandelson, Ken Livingstone and Tony Benn, whereas John Prescott, David Blunkett, John Reid, Lord Falconer, Margaret Beckett, Hazel Blears and Lord Winston are all opposed.

Amongst the popular press, The Guardian, The Independent, the Financial Times, and the Daily Mirror all support AV, whilst The Sun, the Daily Mail, The Times, the Daily Express and The Telegraph are against it.

Celebrity figures and campaign groups have also taken sides, with Eddie Izzard, David Mitchell, Stephen Fry, John Cleese, Helena Bonham Carter, Benjamin Zephaniah, Steve Coogan, Polly Tonybee and Joanna Lumley all pro-AV, lined up against such luminaries as Esther Rantzen, Peter Stringfellow, David Gower, Darren Gough, and Ross Kemp in the "No" camp.

Having written all that, I am starting to wonder why I was so torn on the matter, the Yes campaign seems so full of the kind of people I generally regard as cool (apart from Lord Mandelson that is), while the No campaign appears to be well stocked with dinosaurs, bigots, loonies and Tories (and Rupert Murdoch obviously, who counts as all four).

Perhaps it's because AV seems set up to deliver more of the type of coalition governments we are presently encumbered with?

Perhaps it's out of a desire to see the Lib Dems fail in the one thing they actually stood to gain from entering a coalition with their political opponents (aside from a little taste of power, of course)?

Perhaps its because although we clearly need political reform in this country, the bullshit rebranding exercise that is AV just doesn't come close?

I think a successful "Yes" campaign will cause real political headaches for all of the senior Tories, and I do think it will at least count as a thumbs up to the general principle of political reform. On top of that I do not think, in all conscience, that I can side with the Conservative Party and the right wing Murdoch press in voting against AV, not without spontaneous human combustion becoming a real and present danger anyway.

So I will most likely be voting yes to AV in the referendum next Thursday, but that isn't the opinion I promised earlier in this article.

It is a cynical opinion, but I believe that if the choice of voting system we use had even the slightest chance of changing the political status quo in this country, we would not be getting any say in the matter whatsoever! We have been granted the opportunity to vote in our first UK wide legally binding referendum only because the matter at hand is a trivial irrelevancy. We did not get a referendum on ratifying the Treaty of Lisbon for instance, or on the decision to remortgage the country to bail out banks that were considered too big to fail, and the decisions to invade Iraq, and more recently to attack Libya, were already made long before the choice was even put to our parliament, let alone to a referendum.

Too many of the important decisions affecting us, particularly in economic policy and foreign policy, are made at a level above that of our elected representatives, by bodies such as the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organisation, NATO and the UN Security Council. Without genuine political reform that recognises the changes globalisation has brought to the world, and updates our democratic systems to maintain transparency and accountability to the people at every level of decision making, the choice between two methods of electing our MPs is little more than a distraction.

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