Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 18 February 2011

Something tells me that the campaign in the run-up to the referendum on the voting system on 5 May is going to be rather less than riveting.

It’s not just that the issue itself – whether or not to drop the first past the post system for Westminster elections and replace it with the alternative vote – is technical and not at the front of most voters’ minds. Even campaigners for the “yes” and “no” camps appear to lack all conviction.

Last week, the “yes” camp plumbed the depths of desperation when one of its official spokespeople tried to appropriate the forthcoming royal wedding for the AV cause. “We will put all the arguments, but around the wedding it will be a coming-into-summer, more optimistic, more of a yes mood,” a “campaign source” told the Guardian (which for some reason thought this risible banality warranted a front-page story).

This week, the “no” camp sank even deeper, with an official launch at which its key argument (picked up by the Sun) seemed to be that AV would cost a shocking £250 million, mainly because councils would have to buy expensive vote-counting machines. The press conference subsequently degenerated into a catty exchange about whether “yes” or “no” had the hotter celebrity endorsements.

The real problem is that very few people even among the campaigners for “yes” and “no” are for or against the alternative vote as a matter of principle.

There are a few in the “yes” camp, among them the journalist John Rentoul and the Labour MP Peter Hain, who think that AV is a good thing in itself because it would ensure that every MP received more than 50 per cent of the vote. (AV retains single-member constituencies from first past the post but voters mark their ballot papers “1, 2, 3, 4 …” in order of preference instead of placing an “X” next to the name of their favoured candidate. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of first preferences, the second preferences of supporters of the last-placed candidate are distributed, and so on until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of votes.)

But most supporters of the “yes” campaign are there either for reasons of political self-interest – most analysts believe that the Liberal Democrats would win more seats under AV than under FPTP – or because they see AV as a step towards a more proportional system of representation.

AV itself is not PR. Indeed, it could, and probably would, yield results even more disproportionate than first past the post – and no serious supporter of PR argues otherwise. But AV can be used, in conjunction with regional top-up seats, in a PR system, which is what the late Lord Jenkins advocated – he called it “AV-plus”— in the report of his Independent Commission on the Voting System in 1998. Many in the “yes” campaign, among them the constitutional campaigner Anthony Barnett and the Guardian newspaper, think that a vote to change to AV would open the door to further changes.

I really don’t buy this argument: I can’t see any reason whatsoever to expect that we won’t be stuck with AV for the long term if we vote for it in the referendum – and so, as a supporter of PR who thinks that AV is in many respects even worse than first past the post, I’m going to be voting “no” on 5 May.

Not that I’m happy with my bedfellows. The “no” camp is dominated by self-interested Tory and Labour big-wigs who back first past the post on the grounds that they believe AV would damage their parties’ prospects and that a “no” vote on 5 May will damage Nick Clegg. Hardly anyone in the official No to AV campaign is prepared to make the best principled argument against AV – that it is not proportional – for the simple reason that hardly anyone in No to AV supports PR.

Hence the hogwash at the No to AV launch about how expensive AV would be – which will no doubt be followed by groaning about how complicated AV is, how it would spoil the fun of election night and sundry other irrelevancies.

All of which is a crying shame, because how we vote in elections actually matters – and the referendum will determine whether we are saddled with a system even worse than the one we’ve got now. I’m hoping that the cretinous exchanges of the past week will prove an aberration. But I’m not putting money on it.

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