AV: A need to keep the politics out of political reform

Peter Smith is a retired Government PR professional, now lecturing in journalism, communications and politics at the University of Lincoln.

In less than a month we will be asked by the Government whether or not we want to keep the present first past the post voting system traditionally used for national and local elections, or switch to AV, the Alternative Vote system.

In the face of the continuing issues of cuts, NHS reforms, Libya, and the general wear-and-tear of coalition politics, the case for reform has been slow to find its way to the top of the news agenda.

Even now, it seems that the coverage – locally as well as nationally – is more about the political schisms than about the issues.

There are any numbers of campaigns running: for a Yes vote, No to AV, to scrap first past the post but for Proportional Representation (PR) rather than AV, and even a rogue Tory website in favour of change.

All of these have lined up heavyweight political support and a good smattering of celebrities and commentators to make their case.

Over the weekend the rhetoric has been stepped up and the points—scoring by the two main camps has obscured rather than clarified things. The problem is that both campaigns make essentially the same claim for their preferred voting system—more certainty, less likelihood of more coalitions, keeping the MP-constituency link etc., etc.

Voters are being urged to use the referendum to thwart the coalition but again each camp has a different take—many No supporters see the vote as a chance to drive a wedge between Cameron and Clegg, whilst many Yes campaigners see a change as being the best way to deny Cameron any chance of an outright majority in the future. So the differences are becoming more personal and increasingly about something other than a deep seated commitment to one particular electoral system.

As with the last national referendum, though there has been many local or regional referenda in the meantime, on Britain remaining in the EU (which wasn’t called the EU then, of course), there is no clear party divide on changing the system.

Most Tories, led from the front by David Cameron, are opposed to change and trenchant in their views on the perils of AV but the No campaign is chaired by former Labour Minister Margaret Beckett and has many prominent Labour politicians in its ranks. Which is a little odd as Labour was the only one of the main parties to go into the 2010 General Election with AV in its manifesto, neither Conservatives nor Liberal-Democrats were arguing the case a year ago.

Indeed, Nick Clegg, a passionate advocate of voting reform, had gone on record as describing AV as a “miserable little compromise“. Now he find himself now firmly in the Yes camp, to the extent that Ed Miliband has urged AV supporters to vote positively and not to turn May 6 into a “referendum on Nick Clegg”.

Well, the fact is a referendum on AV was part of the coalition agreement, so we have the rather odd spectacle of David Cameron agreeing to put something he doesn’t want to the country, in order to appease Nick Clegg, who didn’t want it either.

Given that PR purists would rather see the single transferable vote (STV) replace our present system, another analogy that comes to mind is the referendum in Australia in 1999 on whether to retain the Monarch as head of state or to become a republic.

Many republicans were so unhappy with the model of Presidential selection and constitutional change on offer that they voted to retain the Monarch rather than opt for a flawed republic.

Apply that logic and the STV camp might well decide to vote No on May 5 and wait and hope that a more truly representative system might be offered by later Governments.

Similarly, many Labour proponents of AV might vote against this time because tied into the reforms would be a re-drawing of constituency boundaries that would not only reduce the number of MPs for the present 650 to around 600 but would, on best estimates, benefit the Conservatives at Labour’s expense.

We do not yet know the extent of these proposed changes or whether they might affect Lincolnshire but this issue—integral to the Parliamentary debate on the referendum—has all but disappeared from any of the campaigns.

So with less than four week’s of campaigning to go, the two (or more) camps have got a lot to do to explain to a largely in different public why this matters, why their vote counts and why change is, or isn’t needed.

Their mainstream TV campaigns do try to focus on the issues but in the press and PR battle, surely it is time to get the politics out of political reform.