Is Britain ready for a new, scrubbed up voting system? The Tories, modern in rhetoric and fogey by disposition, don’t think so, and they have made this clear as Britons go to the poll for the first referendum the country has seen in 36 years. The brittle alliance with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats is becoming starker than ever over the issue of Alternative Voting (or AV). Prime Minister David Cameron may well have agreed to run the agenda with the Liberal Democrats, but that doesn’t mean he won’t sabotage their quest to alter the status quo.
The determined Cameronians are keen to up the ante on the cost of the exercise, terrifying voters into believing that a system of preferential voting will bring in a new regime of exorbitant costs, unnecessary waste and unending complexity. Nothing in that sense is particularly plausible. The sprawling, unending Australian electoral system, covering an enormous landmass, handles it with economy and efficiency. Voters Down Under, however cranky they might be when getting out to vote on a weekend, generally number every box of the ballot in order of preference without demur.
None of this has convinced Cameron, who fears that British democracy is under threat if the ‘Yes’ vote comes through. ‘Nothing less than the way our democracy works is on the line. First Past the Post has worked for generations. It is simple to understand, gives each person an equal voice and lets the people kick out governments they don’t like. We cannot give all this up’. Such simplicity surely verges on village idiocy, but Cameron is unrepentant. ‘Politics shouldn’t be some mind-bending exercise.’ To expect the voter to be deliberating, intelligent and patient over a list of choices is something distasteful to Cameron. One should vote by gut not mind.
Individuals like the Olympic gold medallist James Cracknell have no time for complexity in political life. ‘The Alternative Vote is so complicated that it will put people off voting and if it allows people who come in third to win then it’s certainly not fair’ (The Telegraph, May 5). Boris Johnson, Mayor’s stumbling and error-prone Mayor, is equally dismissive, claiming that AV would be actually ‘less proportional and less fair’, as if to say that a two-party contest in politics could ever be anything but proportional. That a person might win first past the post with 20 percent of the vote, with other parties dividing the remainder, does not strike Lord Reid as particularly odd. ‘That is the British way, it is the fairest way, and it is the best way.’ No more than two parties, with the occasional spoiler at number three is all these figures can handle. Hypocrisy can only go so far.
Labour is confused on the issue, with 130 opposed and 86 in favour. Former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett is keen that voters sink the AV proposal. ‘If you think we should keep one person, one vote, if you think we should keep the system that is simple and straightforward and has stood us in good stead, then please join us in voting no.’ Surely no better argument for conservatism has ever been made by a member of a progressive party.
This is not to say that the AV model doesn’t have its faults. There is no guarantee, for one thing, that a plethora of multi-party coalitions will come to the fore. On the contrary, the Australian experience suggests otherwise, and both countries loathe grand coalitions of diverse parties. Few safe seats may, on the surface, imply a richer democracy, but what it definitely does do is elevate political campaigning to a battle of the marginals. But the fault with First past the post is that a two-party contest tends to be inevitable in any case, as voters fear seeing their vote exhausted.
This might be Clegg’s only chance at resurrection from within. The Lib Dems and Tories are at each other’s throats, with Chris Huhne possibly readying himself for succeeding the less than shiny Clegg should he take the fall. The austerity measures may well put pay to his influence in the next election. But as the knives are being readied for his demise, he will hope that he might at least have left one mark: the presence of a new electoral system for Britain. Given the polling figures that show the No campaign in the ascendant, we shall have to see.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org