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20 April 2011

Frustrated with the referendum campaign?

Frustrated with the referendum campaign?

This article is published in accordance with the Alliance's Basis of Faith; however, this is a comment piece and therefore is unable to reflect every detail and nuance of belief held by Alliance members. Comment pieces may express views on which there is a divergence of opinion or understanding among evangelicals

As I watched the broadcasts from the 'Yes to fairer votes' and 'No 2 AV' campaigns for the upcoming referendum last week I found myself increasingly frustrated with the campaign. This is one chance for the country to have a say on changing the voting system. The agreement to have this referendum was one of the key factors in clinching the deal between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats after last year's election. 

A change to the voting system has long been an aspiration for the Liberal Democrats while most Conservatives are keen to retain the current system. The referendum campaign has sparked some unlikely partnerships with David Cameron sharing a stage with former Labour Home Secretary John Reid, while Ed Miliband and Vince Cable led a rally in favour of a 'yes' vote. 

As I watched the referendum broadcasts it reminded me that my vote is up for grabs. Usually I have decided how I will vote long before voting day so watch the campaign unfold as an interested bystander. This time, however, I want to be persuaded. I think that there are problems with the current system and can accept the need for reform, but remain unconvinced that what is being proposed is any better than the current system.

This referendum could have been the chance to debate what sort of democracy we want, but a combination of the extremely limited choice under offer, and the nature of the campaigns means that chance seems to have been missed. Instead we have been treated to megaphone politics with both campaigns failing to engage with each other or educate the voters about the different options. The two systems are really rather alike, and that might explain why the Yes and No campaigns have both made rather dubious claims to grab the limelight.

One of the chief criticisms of the AV system is that it is complicated. Both the current system and the proposal for AV are simple to understand from the voter's perspective; under the current system you place a cross next to your chosen candidate, whereas under AV you rank the candidates in order of preference. It does, however, get more complicated when the counting is explained. Currently the candidate with the most votes wins, under AV if one candidate achieves more than 50% of the first preferences they then win straight away. If not, the candidate who finished last is eliminated and their second preferences are then reallocated. This process continues until one candidate has half the votes. If every voter ranks all the candidates then it is guaranteed that the eventual winner will have over 50%, but if some voters just rank some candidates or maybe just give a first preference, then by the time there are only two candidates remaining the winner may have less than 50%. So the accusation that AV is complicated holds some truth, but how you vote will remain very simple.

The referendum broadcast for the Yes campaign was focused around making your MPs work harder. There is always a danger when campaigning for change that you discredit all that is good in the current system. Virtually all MPs work hard and are committed to both national issues and the interests of their local community. The broadcast plays into an anti-politics feeling and encourages voters to think MPs are lazy, disconnected from the voters and enjoy fine dinning at our expense. A change to AV would slightly increase the number of MPs in marginal seats, and these MPs may have to pay closer attention to their popularity, but to claim that this change will make MPs work harder is neither credible nor fair. 

The No 2 AV campaign has also made their fair share of contentious claims, including suggesting that AV would give power to extremists. Under AV a party such as the BNP who receive such a small share of the first preferences are highly unlikely to get elected. This, however, is where the grain of truth exists in the claim; the votes that go to extremist parties who finish bottom are then reallocated to the other parties that receive the second preferences. 

This links into the claim that AV would allow multiple voting. In the final tally, every voter who ranks all the candidates will be represented once and only once. But voters who back smaller parties with their first preferences will have their second, and potentially further, preferences factored into the final result. This also counters the claim made by the 'Yes to fairer votes' campaign that AV would end tactical voting, it wouldn't, it would just require voters to relearn how to vote tactically. 

I can fully understand the desire to run for the hills in the light of these rather undignified campaigns. But there is another option: to find out what the systems involve and think about what you want from a voting system. Although both sides in this campaign have made dubious claims and both arguments have some merits, it is important to remember that this vote gives us a chance to change the way that we elect politicians. In the last issue of Idea magazine two MPs took up the cases for and against changing the electoral system

While this referendum is about whether you prefer numbers or crosses, it is about so much more. It is about what you value in politics, what you want when you cast your vote. We should also remember that democracy does not mean that we get what we want. It means we get to have a say. And on May 5th make sure you have yours. 

This article was originally published in Christian Today, 19 April.