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Yes, No, I don’t mean maybe
- I’m your AV now

by Tristan Stewart-Robertson

CHANGING a voting system is about as easy as getting quality, non-American television sometimes. You know it’s out there somewhere, but finding it is another matter.

So the UK will go to the polls to decide how it goes to the polls – to AV or to not AV.

The No campaign is delighting in making this a vote on Deputy PM Nick Clegg. You can do that if you want, but it’s the easy way out. The opportunity to debate how our system of democracy works comes around very rarely, and when it’s knocked back, it’s dead for a generation.

Take British Columbia, Canada. After a Citizens’ Assembly recommended a change to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, a referendum failed. They tried a second time and it failed by an even bigger margin. It could be another decade before democracy is examined again.

Other Canadian provinces also failed, and there will never be a national change to the voting system because of the high constitutional hurdles. What first past the post (FPTP) ensures in Canada, however, is that 1.3 million votes in one province give the separatist Bloc Quebecois 49 MPs. And 900,000 votes to the Greens across the country give them zero MPs.

Only the Bloc consider this fair. And most Canadians would recognise the system is broken.

In the last UK General Election, it was calculated that even if Liberal Democrats got the most votes overall, they would still have the lease number of seats of the three main parties.

So it’s fine for the “No” campaign to talk about maintaining “one person, one vote”, but those votes are not exactly equal across the country.

The system excludes plurality because the English-speaking world (UK, Canada, US, Australia) don’t want to let go of the clear-cut, two-sided politics. Sorry, but there’s more grey views than black and white these days. Even if that includes extremes, those beliefs exist. They don’t disappear because they lose elections. Sadly, simply saying “racism is bad”, doesn’t eliminate racism.

These are difficult debates to have because there’s no easy solution. Even those in favour of the AV system can’t pretend it’s the most straight forward. Like Canadians explaining STV using ice cream flavours, any change to the system that requires switching from X-marks-the-spot, to 1-2-3-4, seems to be a struggle for a majority of voters.

The last Scottish Parliament elections, when three different systems of voting were used on the same day, caused more than 100,000 votes to be discarded. That’s an outrageous failure of democracy, and of education, to give the electorate the tools to understand how they make decisions.

And it all contributes to further deterring voter turnout. The greatest problem with Western democracies is apathy. Look at the Middle East nations where citizens take to the street to demand free and fair elections. The West might not like the results sometimes, but that’s the nature of democracy and at least some people, somewhere, are still passionate about the right to vote.

AV will not make people more inclined to vote, and neither will sticking with the current system. And politicians on all sides have yet to recognise that they’re putting people off even voting in the referendum with useless soundbites.

“A vote for AV is a vote for the BNP”. No. To get a BNP MP elected would require a majority of voters to consider casual racism as a legitimate second, third or fourth option. Just because AV allows you to rank candidates, doesn’t mean you have to.

“A vote for AV will bring more broken promises”, ie from the LibDems. No. That’s pretending that Labour or the Conservatives have never broken a promise in their political lives. Absolute farce.

Everyone breaks promises; sometimes it’s because they never intended to honour them in the first place; sometimes it’s because of political compromise, which is necessary. One of those insults voters; the other demonstrates leadership. The voters make the final judgement.

Should the LibDems have put forward a referendum on changing the voting system so casually? No. There should have been, like in British Columbia, a Citizens’ Assembly to mediate (not debate) a solution to fairer voting, the House of Lords, and boosting voter turnout. That’s a debate we’re still not having, and one that will be even less likely if we entrench FPTP for the next decade.

In the meantime, we have to make a choice on May 5 – to AV or to hold, as long as the UK’s democracy shall live.

Voting “yes” to the change might prompt a wider debate on reform and plug in booster cables to a democracy on life support. Pulling the plug for a generation isn’t a great alternative.

But if you fail to vote at all, that’s a far greater threat than either Nick Clegg’s promises, or electing a BNP MP.

Vote SOMETHING on May 5.

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