There has been a lot of rubbish talked in the debate over the electoral system referendum. What was a potentially interesting and non-partisan issue has been dragged to lowest common denominator mud-slinging. The number of petty and disingenuous claims by both sides has been embarrassing, and suggests that for a mature, political discussion the last people to ask are the politicians. David Cameron has repeatedly claimed that AV is too complicated, a claim that is both patronising and incorrect - indeed it was the method by which he was elected leader of the Conservative party. Similarly, the ‘Yes’ campaign have focused on negative campaigning, as with their recent poster showing Nick Griffin with the caption, “He’s voting ‘NO’ How about you?” The faults with this line of argument are many, and show that the terrible debate has been caused by both sides, in a ‘rush to the bottom’ campaigning style.
Personally, I don’t think that anyone in the country feels as strongly as the campaigns would have us believe. Whatever the result of the referendum, the sun will still shine, and we will still have to pay taxes. AV is not a major overhaul of our voting system, and is not even a proportional system of voting. I’m not convinced by the claim of the ‘Yes’ campaign that AV will make politicians more accountable, and nor do I believe that AV will lead to an end to British society as we know it. I just think it will be a bit better. That’s all.
I am a relatively recent convert away from First Past the Post (FPTP). (I hesitate to say convert to the ‘Yes’ side, as I am unwilling to credit them with any role in my decision, and want to distance myself from them where possible). I understand many of the benefits of the FPTP system, and I think it has served Britain well for much of our political history. The benefit of FPTP is that is grants a majority to the party which wins a plurality in the election. The First Past the Post system creates a situation whereby the party which receives a plurality, but not a majority, is imbued with a majority in the House of Commons. I can see the benefit of this. However, the salient point for me is that I believe that the electoral system should not take the results of an election and fix them to make them ‘better’. In essence, I don’t think the electoral system should get a vote. I think the result of the election should match as closely the votes cast in an election. I’m not advocating for PR, because I believe a local link to an MP is important at a time when Parliament seems distant and discredited. But I feel that the votes cast in an election should be the result.
In the 2005 German Federal election, Angela Merkel and her CDU/CSU party won 35.2% of the popular vote. Her party won 248 seats in the Bundestag, out of a possible 598 (41.4%), and formed a coalition with the SPD. In the 2005 UK General Election, Tony Blair and the Labour party won exactly the same percentage of the popular vote as Angela Merkel, 35.2%. Tony Blair won 355 seats out of 646 (54.9%) and held a majority of 66 seats. With just over a third of the popular vote, Blair was able to enjoy a comfortable majority, where Merkel formed a coalition, which in total accounted for 69.4% of the popular vote. I know which result I think is better.
One of the major arguments against non-FPTP systems is that it breeds too many coalitions (something which puts David Cameron in a bit of pickle, since it is difficult to say coalitions are bad without undermining the current coalition - however, I don’t think Cameron really believes coalitions are intrinsically bad any more than he believes AV is complicated). Benjamin Disraeli famously said that “England does not like coalitions”. However, there’s no real reason why coalitions are bad. Yes, it means that law-making can be slowed, but only because no single party has a mandate for legislating. Instead coalitions force political parties to be less partisan, and more consensual, something which voters appreciate. The U.S. Constitution is based on compromise and scrutiny, and has achieved certain elements of success. In Europe, coalitions are common. Even in the UK, local government is more often than not run by coalitions. Indeed, conservatives (with a big and a small c) should welcome coalitions as an opportunity to prevent radical and unmandated legislation from becoming law. Obviously, coalitions with huge numbers of parties are too unstable, as any student of Weimar Germany knows, although this was an example of full PR, rather than the measured reform of AV.
That is not to say that AV is perfect, and I certainly don’t think it is the best electoral system we could have in this country. The Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system used in Germany and in the Scottish Parliamentary elections allows for a local MP, whilst giving more proportional results. This would be my ideal system. However, AV is a step in the right direction. A ‘No’ vote would, I believe, end the case for Parliamentary reform for a generation. AV is not the end point, but instead will gradually lead to further parliamentary reform. The 1832 Reform Act is knows as the ‘Great Reform Act’ not because it slightly extended the franchise, but because it ushered in the age of reform, with Acts in 1868, 1884 and 1918 all building on the extension of the franchise. Voting ‘Yes’ to AV is a very British form of politics, favouring evolution over revolution, and gradual change over rebellion. A ‘Yes’ vote would be a vote improving a system which has seen better days. In the words of Edmund Burke, one of the philosophical fathers of modern Conservatism, “Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”