THIS week a powerful section of Britain’s political class demonstrated beyond any remaining doubt that they now inhabit a parallel universe to the rest of us. For most people out in the real World, it was the spectre of higher inflation, a possible increase in interest rates and rocketing unemployment that added to the dank gloom of mid February. But on Friday David Cameron and Nick Clegg chose to give set piece speeches on changing Britain’s voting system – although the Prime Minister says he wants to keep our ’first past the post’ system, a system that on the whole has served us pretty well. In Parliament, peers added their final touches to a bill that paves the way for a referendum on changing Britain’s voting system. Those final touches included a surrender on the 40% required to vote ‘yes’ in favour before the system can actually be changed. For the Government had finally marshalled 251 votes to beat off a cross party group of 153 rebels, determined as it was to forge ahead and hold the referendum on whether we should have something known as the ‘Alternative Vote’ in early May.
Now all it will require is a simple majority, possibly on a pathetically low turn-out, to give us a new way of electing our MPs. The referendum has been dumped on us to keep Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats happy as part of the Coalition agreement with David Cameron. The AV system - will mainly benefit small parties, including small parties like Nick Clegg’s which risk getting even smaller without it. The AV system allows electors to rank candidates in order of preference, until one person has won over half of the votes. Until quite recently only a handful of complete nerds could tell you how the system really works. Ironically, I was elected as President of my Student Union by AV back in the mid 1980s. Not that I could have explained to anyone how AV worked, and even now I would have difficulty.
But this week’s retreat by the peers over the 40% ‘yes’ vote requirement really does matter because now our whole election system could be irrevocably changed by a truly miniscule turn-out of voters. If local government election turn-out in this country is anything to go by, the referendum could be decided by a majority of the barely 25% to 35% of those who vote at all. If that scenario plays out, even the best army of spin doctors in the World would find it difficult to argue that this amounted to a ringing endorsement. Frankly they would risk being chased down the street if they did, because many MPs now report that voters truly resent the likely expense of the referendum. Perhaps this would matter less if the Alternative Vote was demonstrably a fairer system of elected our MPs, but few seem to believe that it is.
On the other hand, a system of true proportional representation would be fair, which is something Nick Clegg and his party once said that they believed in. In fact Nick Clegg believed in proportional representation so much that even last year he was decrying the ‘Alternative Vote’ as, in his words; “a miserable little compromise”. So what has changed?
On May 5th we will be asked in the first referendum since 1975, when Britain opted to stay in something quaintly known as the Common Market , if we would like to swap our ‘first past the post’, winner takes all system of electing MPs for AV. You can bet your bottom dollar that the ‘explanatory’ wording on the ballot paper will leave us all in no doubt that this whole exercise is about having a chance to vote for a ‘fairer voting’ system. Part of the expense of this exercise, estimated by the ‘No to AV’ campaign at around a cool £250 million, is a proportion to be spent educating the public on how the system might work. Even if the anti AV campaigners are exaggerating the referendum price tag, half of that amount would still be an outrageous waste of taxpayers’ money in these austere times.
Where is the evidence that many of us actually want a referendum? Is anyone really talking about the ‘Alternative Vote’ in the pubs and clubs? And why on earth are we being rushed into having it now? The answers are that this is the price David Cameron must pay for his coalition with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. Only three other countries in the World have adopted the AV system; Australia and its near neighbours, Papua New Guinea and Fiji. Hilariously, the latter is even now trying to scrap it.
In fact for a fraction of the cost, voters could be asked another question altogether; ‘Which would you prefer? a) A referendum on changing Britain’s voting system or b) a referendum on whether we should stay in the European Union? It is not difficult to guess how the votes might stack up on either side of that one, which is precisely why our political classes really wouldn’t like people to have a referendum on something whose outcome they could not be certain of.
As it happens such is Nick Clegg’s current unpopularity that it seems unlikely that he will play a prominent role in the ‘yes’ campaign. Neither is David Cameron is likely to pull out all of the stops for the ‘No’ campaign – as with the recent Littleborough & Saddleworth by election – in order to save the Deputy Prime Minister’s blushes. His backbenches will be incandescent in their opposition, and get even angrier with Cameron, while many Labour MPs will campaign against. For not only do many MPs not like the prospect of AV, they are mightily alarmed at the re-drawing of constituency boundaries that will come with it. This will likely lead to fewer Labour MPs for instance. Ironically, even if a minority of the electorate votes for change, it could be because they mistakenly believe they are giving a kick up the backside to a Parliament that in recent years has been so horribly dogged by sleaze. This is what Ed Miliband, a supporter of AV is hoping. He believes that in backing a ‘yes’ vote he will be seen as the ‘pro reform’ party leader. But if the ‘yes’ campaign succeeds, which given the peers’ retreat this week, it now has every chance of doing, we will have to get used to government by coalition. And if Ed Miliband were to win the next general election, he would probably end up having to try and do a deal with the same Liberal Democrats who had just been in bed with the Conservatives.
What a truly ghastly thought!