It’s a "yes/no" question, Minister

And so, we’re getting another referendum. Possibly. Maybe. In time.

I remember those hazy, lazy far off days when the chances of Britain getting a referendum on anything was dismissed as pinko dreaming. We don’t do referendums, the Establishment sneered, that’s European.

“This is Britain,” went the line. “We have unelected, unaccountable political appointees in the House of Lords and that’s the end of it,”.

These days there is nothing which can’t be resolved without the mention of the word “referendum”. It’s radical, it’s representative, it’s hip and now and acknowledging the power of the people and all the rest. Crucially the referendum as concept is sewing itself within the fabric of our unwritten constitution – thanks to the e-petition scheme and a combination of Facebook and plummeting confidence in the political system holding referendums  is considered the strongest tool of all inside democracy’s garden shed. You can’t go too far into the nightmare world of On-Line Comment Sections without seeing people called WhitePower84 or Orwell Was Right directing you to their e-petition against or for the kneejerk demand du jour, and I think it’s fantastic that we’re walking down this particular road. “Referendum as threat” would make a cracking dissertation.

I recall when the very notion of Britain embracing the referendum was sneered at for being unsuitable. Holding a public plebiscite was an act which others did – the Swiss, for example, with their four languages and political neutrality and chocolate and giving Celine Dion her big break. Critics argued that a general election was the only referendum Britain needed, as we transferred our right to have a say to those MPs who sat at Westminster, that somehow holding a secondary vote was invalidating the result of that election.

Things changed with the Blair government, who gave Scotland and Wales the right to support devolution, and since then the Welsh have given a further thumbs up to awarding extra powers at Cardiff Bay. Voters in Scotland will soon have a say on leaving the Union, perhaps the greatest sign of the politician’s acknowledgement of the power of the referendum. “I act upon what the people say” and all that.

Of course the greatest example of the referendum on these isles was the AV referendum. I still shudder at the memory.

The “no” vote on voting change was a kick in the constitutionals, and no mistake. Voting reform was knocked back a generation. The campaign was not edifying, nor mature, and those who campaigned on either side revelled in behaviour unthinkable in a general election.

“No” supporters used the most shallow and cynical campaign tricks – “This baby needs a life support machine and a cute little puppy and hugs from his mother, not a new voting system YOU MONSTER” – which was nonetheless successful. The power of the repeated meme and all that, and something which must be combated by “In” campaigners next time round. Anything which was good for the defeat of AV will be considered good for the Scottish Independence vote too, and that’s all for the worse in the longer term.

If Cameron does go to the country after 2015 with an EU vote the difficulties faced by the Yes2AV experience will come back with a vengeance. Those in favour of the change couldn’t agree on a theme until a few days before polling day, and even when there was a hint of a united message, some of the adverts used by them accurately described a voting system which was anything but AV. Similar mess-ups both in Scotland and the EU votes would deliver defeats before midnight.

Britain’s future is within the EU, that’s my view now  as it’s been for years. I’m not particularly confident about living in a country which purposely isolated itself from the rest of the trading world at a time when every other major power is doing precisely the opposite. If there is to be a referendum, we “In” supporters must learn from the lessons of the AV disaster. We have to agree on a simple, single message, and use that message alone. We must avoid  falling into the trite, over-emotional garbage of the No campaign, which effectively distorted the pro-message without having to do anything. Crucially there has to be meat to share round years before the vote is even announced, as the AV campaign had nothing in the cupboard beyond an old tin of golden syrup, some rice and an old -fashioned manual tin opener.

The EU vote can be won because Britain needs to remain within the club for the greater, long-term good of both country and region. It would be a folly of ridiculous proportions to pretend that a Britain alone is a Britain strengthened, the kind of isolationist, borderline xenophobic thinking which permeates the “Better Off Out” brigade. But just as with the AV vote, it doesn’t take much to gain traction with peoples emotions. A “yes” to the EU is not a “no” to Britain. It’s not patriotic to support building a wall between these islands and Germany for the sake of feeling good about defeating bendy bananas and all the rest of it.

Saying “no” to AV was a constitutional disaster, putting back real reform of our voting system a generation or more, and slamming shut any real chance of improvements to the Commons, the Lords and so much more. An “out” vote in 2017 at the EU referendum would be much, much worse – economically, socially, politically. If there’s anyone worried about how the campaign might go, look back at the AV experience, take it, hold it close, cherish it……and then throw it into the sun. 

a third way

Earlier this year I likened the constitutional argument between Nick Clegg (House of Lords) and David Cameron (reducing the size of the House of Commons) to the horror film Saw, insofar as whatever one man achieves the other suffers personal/professional injury. I concluded that it would be better for the Liberal Democrats in the long term to play down House of Lords reform; the amount of damage done to the LibDems if they’re seen as obsessed with the issue will only benefit Cameron and his stirring backbenchers.

(Incidentally, Labour are now against House of Lords reform, which might come as a surprise to people).

Somewhere from the long grass is another constitutional tinkering that could be about to whack the Coalition in the face like Sideshow Bob and garden rakes. That’s the ‘right to recall’ issue, something Cameron said he supported at the height (or depth, depending on how you see it) of the expenses scandal.

Although it has been spoken of as early as April by the Leader of the House, ‘right to recall’ remains the reform that dare not speak its name. MPs were reticent to scrap 50 of their colleagues in the boundary review process so it’s not surprising that handing electors such power is down the list of priorities. It’s not as though other countries which use recall mechanisms make it easy – there’s petition chasing across the US on an almost daily basis as people rush to find millions of valid signatures. In the UK, a smaller population with smaller constituencies makes recall potentially easier to manipulate, handing the profession awkward squads (the Newspaper Comment Section Corps.) the power to play merry Hell for the sake of it.

“We should have the power to sack MPs!” is a populist move, which might persuade people to rush for a pen at the earliest opportunity. Remember, though, that the e-petition to bring back the death penalty barely registered much support at all, which dampens fears that the green ink parade will be orchestrated to chuck out any Cabinet Minister which looks at them funny.

If the push-me/pull-me games over House of Lords reform verses Reduction in the Number of MPs ends up with both defeated, ‘right to recall’ could be the compromise choice. It may have something of the gesture about it, though it’s easier to trail at either devolved assembly before being introduced at Westminster, and should see a genuine change in the attitude of MPs who think the expenses farrago has died down. Forcing a by-election in cases of criminal behaviour makes as much sense to me as chucking out of parliament lawmakers whose seat exists by virtue of a great-great-great grandfather getting into an emotional clinch with a washer-woman. General elections can be easily ‘ducked’ by MPs who don’t fancy having to face the music (as we saw with record numbers of retirements prior to 2010). The ‘right to recall’ would be almost unavoidable.

Constitutional reform is long overdue in the UK, in part because the mere mention of the administrative wheels behind the whole charade tend to make people glaze over (not just their eyes). The lack of will by any government, of any colour, is in stark contrast to the manner with which this Coalition has tried to get into the workings with spanners and hammers aloft (“spanners” is not a derogatory term meaning ‘Clegg and Cameron’, honest). That Labour, of all parties, stands against constitutional reform is jaw-slapping. That a party ‘of the workers’ chose to stand against modernising the voting system (which would give members of the public more say in who represented them in parliament, one of Labour’s founding principles) staggers me still today. The AV referendum would have been won had Labour chose to kick FPTP rather than Nick Clegg.

Lords reform may well be defeated by a bizarre combination of the now anti-reform Labour Party and backbench Conservative dinosaurs, in much the same way that reducing the size of the Commons was almost chucked out by the same tag-team of old school grumps and new breed professional politicians in Burton’s suits and safe northern constituencies. I warned the LibDems against looking like obsessives over issues like this, just in case the passion overflows. No party would lose face if, as an alternative to the bickering over the most serious reforms to our country’s governance, they helped ‘right to recall’ onto the statute books. Cameron once called for all parties to follow him in supporting the change: I wonder if he’ll now use this as his price for peace across the Cabinet table.

Vote 2011 – Every Loser Wins

Football managers are experts at finding diamonds in the rough (even Arsene Wenger, whose track record at actually witnessing contentious episodes on the pitch is quite the stuff of legend). Mssrs Molyles, Grant and the rest are wheeled out for post-game interviews to spout, by and large, the same things. “Yeah, it was two points dropped away from home, but you know, the lads really shone today and to come away with a point at this end of the season, you know, yeah, it’s really changed the way we look at the remaining games.”

This week I have been reminded that politicians can find positives in every situation with just as much ease and attraction to the tenuous. With so many elections on the same day – a veritable orgy of democracy – it’s little wonder how our elected elders have analyses the same source material and found completely different conclusions. Just off-side? Questionable linesman decisions? It’s all same-difference….

I will begin with Labour, whose leader Ed Miliband has been doing the media rounds talking much whilst saying little. “There are alternatives to everything this Government is doing” he says (well, sorry, “this Conservative-led government”). Sadly, Ickle Miliband is yet to outline exactly what those alternatives are. His Party were signed up to make public spending cuts in the same mould of the Coalition, so the “unspoken alternatives” he is failing to outline discredit his argument.

Labour did very well in two parts of the country – across Northern England they battered the Liberal Democrats seven shades of Sunday. Many great Northern towns are now without any LibDem representation at local level, or at the very least have seen their numbers slashed to bare minimum. Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle, Hartlepool, Hull, Leeds, Bolton – each city witnessed colossal drops in LibDem support. Here in Preston, our vote share collapsed in keeping with many others across the region, although we held onto one of our historically safest areas and increased our share of the vote in the target ward of Tulketh. As with all these towns and cities, we will be focusing on the Labour Party’s rule to ensure they keep to the budgetary constraints accepted by the Council before the election was called.

In Scotland, unlike Wales, the Labour Party suffered terribly. The SNP ripped apart the totems of Labour support – the Central Belt has almost no Labour MSPs at constituency level. Glasgow is over-half Nationalist, even Gordon Brown’s Kirkcaldy ditched Labour for the SNP. Fingers have pointed at Iain Gray, whose leadership did not inspire activists never mind voters, though the SNP’s success is clearly one of coherent policies. Labour went for negativity and attack, both of which failed to chime with voters who wanted to hear positivity and leadership.

Supporters of y Blaid may well be looking askance at their nationalist cousins. Labour’s working majority at Cardiff Bay clearly shows the difference with their leadership and campaign messages in the two nations. Could it be that Plaid Cymru stepping away from independence talk has made their brand weak and unattractive? What does falling to third do for Plaid’s future?

And now the Liberal Democrats. Well….

….Okay, so in Scotland we did appallingly badly. Wiped off the mainland in constituency terms we are now the Northern Isles Party in that regard, saved from total embarrassment by the vagaries of the d’Hondt voting system and its top-up seats. Clearly Scotland voted for its national parliament with one eye on Westminster politics; Scottish people have great difficulty in accepting any political alliance with the Conservatives can be sold for the national interest. That great guaranteed hotbed of liberal support – the Highlands – tossed us away like a caber. Just like the Labour Party in the South, so we have been attacked by our core supporters for not offering a credible or distinctive policy package and until we can speak with our own voice again Scotland will not e forgiving to whoever leads the Scottish Liberal Democrats in the future.

In England’s local elections, the Liberal Democrats suffered terribly in the North of England. The figures are stunning and sobering. Liverpool slapped us at every opportunity, Manchester ditched us entirely, and Sheffield stuck two fingers up at Clegg in his beloved backyard. Newcastle and Hull got rid of LibDems only a year after giving them control of their respective councils. Handfuls of LibDem councillors across Cumbria fell without so much as a handshake.

The lesson was very different in the South. We still run Eastbourne Council having lost 5 seats straight to the Conservatives, an increase of 8 Conservative Councillors didn’t change our control of South Somerset, and Portsmouth is still under our control (with no increase in Labour representation at all).

We have to learn from this. The messages we gave to voters over the period long before last year;s general election still hold true. We have thousands of dedicated councillors who fulfill their role as street champions and local representatives far better than their Labour equivalents. There is no sense of entitlement to any of our councillors and their wards. Clearly the Coalition is having a damaging effect on our representation, but that is not a reason to ditch it all in and start again.

The Conservatives won seats and councils last week, one of the first times that a ruling party has made advances after in their first year. They consolidated their southern support whilst making very limited increases from the midlands up (indeed the story in Birmingham is one of almost complete Tory collapse). Tories are still almost completely absent in the industrial towns across Lancashire, Manchester and Yorkshire. There may be blue bits in Sefton, but there most certainly are not in Liverpool, St Helens or Knowsley. In Wigan, the leader of the Tory group lost his seat in Orrell. In Chorley, the Tories lost control of the Council.

The winners/losers argument for the post-match interview is, therefore, whatever you want it to be. Labour cannot claim to have “won” the election period, having been demolished in Scotland and only reclaiming old ground in the North. Neither can the LibDems even suggest things are looking alright, for it clearly isn’t. The Tories need to examine how they break out of their comfort zones, because it still has yet to happen.

Two final points – the BNP were wiped out of Stoke Council, and seem to have only one defending councillor re-elected across the country. Their slow and satisfying collapse continues and long may that continue.

And I cannot leave without mentioning the AV Referendum. We lost. It’s terrible that the No brigade managed to drag victory from the ditches of its awful campaign, not least because this slams shut on meaningful electoral and constitutional reform for a generation. There is no two ways about this – saying No to AV has killed off any chance for a fairer, more representative voting system in the UK and that is a scandal for a so-called developed Western democracy. Labour had 13 years in charge to make a go of this, they failed, and this week their lack of action has come home to roost.

Some election periods are dull. Not this one. Much change, not least in Scotland, with constitutional and representative hoo-ha to follow. For those who found the AV campaign “a bit much”, incidentally, you wait until the boundary changes start…

Round-table tradition

Read the published diaries of almost any former MP – Alan Clark, Gyles Brandreth, Chris Mullin – and amongst the common themes is one ‘absolute’ which links through every political era and will doubtlessly do so for the foreseeable. If “reform” means anything to the Coalition government, the annual parlour game which distracts MPs, obsesses journalists and distracts even the most ardent policy-wonk from the finer points of the issue at hand. It is, but of course, the Cabinet Reshuffle, the one element of British political life which shared with football, and the one tradition no government has ever considered could be worth putting to bed.

Prior to the election – and reiterated last year both Cameron and Clegg have tried to distance the Government from the annual charade. If only anyone would believe them. It’s not necessarily their faults – football fans know that the merry-go-round will one day stop turning, and one of the chosen few will be back in a job not long before or after Christmas.

Only in the realm of politics could there be similar employment attitudes to the chairman of football plcs. The MPs I mentioned above cannot avoid writing – and enjoying – the sport of promotion and demotion, the rise and fall of backbench stars or Cabinet flops. Clark relished every chance to insult those who passed him on their way up the ladder or to scoff when they fell back to earth. Brandreth recalls the need to stuff the Ministerial red box of Stephen Dorrell (newly promoted at the Department for National Heritage as it then was) with videos of British film classics as he was in a position for which he had no understanding. Chris Mullin regularly recalls how ministers across Africa and Europe could not make strong relationships with British counterparts because, amongst other things, the 13 years of Labour rule saw over 30 different MPs given the jobs of Minister for Europe, or Minister for Africa.

The Reshuffle is enjoyed and endured as a consequence of the Old Boys Club attitude within Westminster. The most conscientious constituency representative becomes enslaved to the system – will the call from Downing Street come this year? Next?

Who would care about the Whitenslade Scouts Summer Fayre when there’s ministerial responsibility just around the corner? Mullin admits that even the most lowly promotion is grasped with both hands. He also writes very well about how sharp and short the experience can be; the Minister who has spent a year building relationships and strong reputations can be out the door in the morning to be replaced by someone who has to start the whole thing from scratch.

Reshuffles are outdated, outmoded, and clearly straight out of the Great British political traditions dressing up box. They are very expensive – Department names are changed and re-named at whim (“Department for Children, Families and Schools” lasted just over 3 years before returning to “Department for Education”. One has to ask – why did it have to change at all?). Ministers suddenly become experts in their new field (and did we have any faith in Margaret Beckett as Foreign Secretary? Really?).

Cameron, as ultimate hirer-and-firer, should take a lead from the rest of Europe on this (and for that matter, the US, where such pack-shuffling is almost unheard of). To allow Ministers and Secretaries of State to get on with their jobs, the constant ticking clocks must have their batteries removed. Cameron has made some unfortunate ministerial choices, but whilst in other jobs (especially in business) time is allowed for improvement, the Westminster attitude leaves sharpened knives at the door. Policies which are not delivering need focus and concentration. The delivery of policy is stifled if the carousel is whirred into action by pressure from every lobby hack with impatience and deadlines on their mind.

To show the wider public that the Coalition really does understand “new politics”, Cameron should avoid anything remotely close to a full-scale Reshuffle until at least next year. Another glut of traditionalists doubtlessly feel angered, another reem of right-wing Tories will huff and howl, though it’s all for the good. Few people in the real world see as much pointless, expensive, repetitious, duplicating japery as members of parliament. It infects their brains, alters their thinking. Any MP who knows their thing will tell you the same – and it has ultimately damaged our political culture.

One could argue that the only way to fix the Reshuffle bug is a wholesale revolution within our political system, cutting the link between constituency MP and Ministerial job (as happens in so many parliamentary republics), increasing the number of appointed Ministers who are not accountable to voters. Others could argue that no Reshuffle should happen at all between elections, giving voters the right to compare like-for-like over a parliaments life-time.

Some traditions are hard to break. The dinosaurs who want to keep First-past-the-Post (because, you know, an MP needs only 33% of the vote in their constituency to become Foreign Secretary) are the same who lap up the “fun” of the Reshuffle and all it represents. Football is rightly criticised for giving second, third, and forty-eighth chances to the same old dwindling number of ex-managers. Politics really should have the same fingers pointed in its direction. Cameron should lead by example and leave the parlour games for another year.

Second preference – Primary colours

Amongst and alongside the hundreds of council elections in England, and devolved assembly elections in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, there is an additional ballot paper fought and argued over. It is, of course, the AV referendum poll, asking the population to become interested in voting reform and constitutional renewal in a way never done before, and especially unthinkable under a Conservative-led government, but these are the days in which we find ourselves.

(And today, for me, is looking like another very beautiful summer’s day, so if the sun doesn’t sign on the righteous then at least one hopes it will on pro-AV campaigners).

The level of debate on both sides has been somewhat…tetchy. It’s been awkward, unsettling, somewhat irritating. I can’t help shake off the feeling that the anti-AV lot are more concerned by their own short-term electoral future, which explains their partisan arguments and insults. At least the pro-lobby have tried to fashion a more rounded, deeper argument, not that it has been faultless on this side either.

It could well be a fatal blow for constitutional reform where AF defeated. My head and heart are saying different things (yes, I really do consider the finer points of voting reform in my quiet moments). There is a hunger for change in the country, one which simmers still after the expenses scandal and all which spewed out thereafter like so much Donner meat on a Sunday morning. Electors have their muscles flexed still, more cynical than ever and less likely to choose any of the main three parties as first ports of call. The age of the protest vote (and, as we’ve witnessed, the age of the protest) has not been this strong in decades.

What other options exist if the AV vote is lost? Would the door slam on any future political reform, so much ideas and ideals turned to dust?

I am throwing onto the table of ideas (it’s a nice table, lots of room for wine and nibbles), the concept of American-style Primaries for almost all candidates for all Westminster constituencies.

Primaries have been tried in the UK in before, with the run up the last general election seeing the Conservatives trying them in some constituencies tainted the most by expenses sleaze. The idea, based largely on the US system of Primaries and caucuses and pulling names out of hats or whatever they do over there, sees residents register in advance their intention to take part in a public meeting at which candidates persuade the assembled bods who should be the candidate at the forthcoming election for a particular party. Crucially, the audience cannot be entirely taken from party members and supporters, it has to be a crowd made from all party supporters and none. “Oh but that could mean Labour supporters voting for the Tory candidate”, comes the cry. So? Under our tired voting system so many such choices are made in the selection of an MP, or is context important all of a sudden?

The Labour left are fond of Primaries too. Leader Ed Miliband is one of a number of left figures who has signalled support in the very recent past. In 2009, Will Straw told CommentIsFree that Primaries could work for a Labour party battered and unsettled by a drop in support. It remains true today that candidate selections are often dictated by the HQs, central office and gentleman’s agreements. Despite storming to victory at this year’s Barnsley byelection, Labour Party members on a number of their websites did cyber-sigh about the alleged imposition of a candidate above local members.

Primaries would hack away some of the grip from ‘on high’. Conservative high-ups are not entirely pleased that one of their winners from the process, Dr Sarah Wollaston, is a vocal opponent to NHS reforms, but we need more people like her, and the doors would open wider with Primaries introduced. We all know how candidates would react with non-party members asking questions unbound by convention, mini-Question Times breaking out across the country with the aim of selecting parliamentary candidates in the name of ‘attracting ordinary voters’.

Bring Primaries (candidates chosen by the people) with AV (an empowering voting system), and you drag the UK into somewhere beyond the 19th Century. Greater chance of BME candidates, younger participants, greater debate in the lead up to polling day with more coverage of each party and their policies. It is not a panacea, there are lots more to do, though they would shine much needed light into the dark of PPC selections.

I would open up Primaries to as many parties as possible. Each constituency must be opened up to allowing parties and the public to scrutinise the choices put to them, the policies promised and the personalities introduced. Yes, the US examples we see over here are filtered to amplify the ‘noise’. Our system is not presidential, our Primaries would not be such big-money freak shows.

If AV falls – and I hope it doesn’t – there has to be a flame of reform kept alive. If the Coalition wants to take a lead from its own past, Primaries would be the best thing to happen for the sake of democracy.

AV Q & A

Right, I’ve got my polling card through the post and I’m somewhat confused

By the new proviso they’ve tacked on the bottom about not getting ballot papers after 10pm?

No, the thing at the top. “Voting System Referendum”. What the merry Hell is that, I thought only backward countries in the depths of beyond held referedums. Like Switzerland and California…

Well both those parts of the world do hold referenda…Referendums…And now we’ve got one. It’s got the Internet in a right old tizz of excitement. We’re hoping members of the public will get involved around about 24 hours before.

I’m fairly certain it’s referenda…Anyway, what are we voting on exactly?

The voting system used to elect Members of Parliament.

Heavens above, what’s next, tarrif reforms relating to processed meat products outside the EEA?

Look, these things are rare and beautiful gifts given to us by our elected representatives and they must be cherished for what they are.

Fine, it just seems a bit ‘policy wonk’ to me.

You wait until I start explaining how the AV system works…

So, anyway, how did we get a referendum in the first place?

At the last election, the Liberal Democrats and Labour both agreed that the UK should change the way it elects MPs. Labour wanted AV, the Liberal Democrats a different system called STV…

Pff, another broken promise from the LibDems, then, that damn Clegg…

No, no, wait…

Where’s my gold unicorn, eh? WHERE IS IT?

Back in the room, back in the room, focus now…It is not a broken promise, it’s compromise…

Oh yeah, compromise, Coalition rules, all of that…What do you mean?

The Conservatives wanted to keep the current system, with a cut in the number of MPs to 585, whilst Clegg wanted it cut to 500. So the compromise between “same system, 585” and “STV, 500”, is “AV, 600”.

And are both parties happy with this middle ground?

Pretty much. The traditionist wing of the Tories are against AV to their very finger-nails, and I suspect most LibDems wouldn’t have asked for a referendum on the Christmas List but here we are…

And Labour?

Split. Ed Mil….Edward Miliband, forgive me, is all for it, and hopes to take most of his Party with him. There are dissentors amongst the Labour benches, though, and many local council groups are against it out of an automatic knee-jerk anti-LibDem bitterness…

Citation needed?

Yeah, well, it seems Edward is having a hard time persuading the grassroots to follow him on this one.

So what system to we currently use then?

MPs are elected using “First Past The Post”, or “Winner Takes All”. You just have to win by one vote over your opponents, regardless of vote share. If you top the ballot, you’re an MP.

And this is unfair?

In short, yes.

And long?

Many MPs sit on the green benches without a majority in their constituencies. And this isn’t a partisan point, there are MPs from almost every Party where this is the case. Phil Woolas (remember him….) “won” Oldham East and Saddleworth with 31.9% of the vote, only 0.3 ahead of the LibDems. John Pugh, the LibDem MP for Southport, was elected with 49.6%, still less than an outright majority.

The FPTP system was at its best when there was much more polarised support for the two main political parties. That era died many moons ago, but our voting system hasn’t caught up.

And how does this AV thing work?

Rather than forcing voters into choosing one candidate, even if it’s not one they really prefer…

…Like, ooh, forcing people into making a grubby little compromise?

Yes, thank you, I’ll choose the labels. As I was saying, rather than forcing people into making a choice they might not prefer – holding their nose to vote Labour in a ‘marginal’ seat – AV allows people to make as many choices as they see fit. It empowers, whilst FPTP anchors.

But “winner takes all” is quite easy to understand, isn’t it?

Oh it is, and in many circumstances it is the better system. Politics is not about “black and white”, though, it thrives on the grey areas, the compromise, the give-and-take, which AV promotes.

How do you count votes under AV then?

Voters rank candidates in order of preference – as easy as 1,2,3…All the first preferences are tallied up, and if a candidate reaches 50% of the vote, they’re an MP, easy.

What if they don’t reach this magic 50%?

The second preferences of the least popular candidates are redistributed until somebody does.

Isn’t there a worry that second votes from fringe candidates could swing results?

That’s the current line from the “NO” campaign, who are paranoid about the BNP somehow having a big say in British elections. It’s not as though the presence of extremists over 50-odd years hasn’t had an implied influence over policies, candidates and indeed results as it is, or anything…

Would I be forced into voting BNP? Because I sure as heck don’t want to do that…

Nope. Unlike the Australian system, there’s no compulsion. You can vote just for one candidate, as now, or all of them. Or just some.

But rank, not with a big “X”

Aye, that’s the one. Rank in preference order, and let the counters do the maths…

Don’t you mean multi-million pound counting machines which would deny a hospital of life-saving equipment?

No, no I don’t.

Is this new fangled system proportional? The LibDems liked to talk about proportional representation once…

Indeed so, and it’s a notable uncomfortable truth that AV is not exactly proportional…It was said that Blair’s 1997 victory would have been even more immense under AV….

I don’t like the sound of that…

It’s one of the ghost stories LibDems tell each other over the campfire…

I hear AV will end ‘safe seats’ stone dead? Is that true?

It is not exactly true – I doubt Birkenhead (Labour Majority 15,195) is about to turn into a knife-edge marginal constituency anytime soon…However for much more seats than at present, the contest will become much tighter – no more “tactical” voting, more votes than ever will actually be counted, rather than simply dismissed.

Why are people saying AV is complicated?

Because the NO camp seem to think that an ordinary person can carry around in their heads minute details about football results, soap opera story lines and national flags without any issue, whilst the concept of counting to 5 is beyond them…

Will AV mean more Coalition governments?

Maybe so, maybe not. The current system has had its moments – the 1970s was awash with minority governments and hung parliaments, and last year you may recall there being no single party with the right amount of seats to form a government on their own…

What would happen if the country voted no? End of the Coalition? Cameron angry, Cameron SMASH?

Er…No….Well, I say no, both men are dismissing talk of the Coalition falling if the country says “no”.

Well you’ve made that clear…

It is a tough cookie, and one which many LibDem members see as the only true prize for making such a hard choice last year…The Tory grassroots are hoping for a big fat NO so they can start tugging on the loose threads of the whole Government in the hope it all falls apart.

In summary then, the current system is not very good, proposed system is better if not perfect, and no baby monitors will be harmed either way?

That’ll do for me.

So you could provide a link to the Yes campaign website round about here, shouldn’t you?

Why of course..http://www.yestofairervotes.org

Making the Case for AV

Ed Mili…Edward Miliband has made some good judgement calls recently, balancing his rather unwise “I have a dream” moment at Hyde Park. (Historians will not, I suggest, draw a linear connection from the Suffragettes to the Right Honourable Member for Doncaster South).

First good call – supporting the “Yes” campaign for the AV referendum, which should ensure a decent turnout amongst Labour supporters, many of whom still smart from Tony Blair’s dismissal of all things related to constitutional reform. (It was Blair who asked Roy Jenkins to come up with a new voting system for Westminster. When he did so – a modified form of AV called “AV+”, Blair decided he didn’t like having his eyes glazed over by policy documents so dumped them without apology).

Miliband’s support for AV is significant in this age of Coalition government. He is confident – and genuinely so, it seems – that there still can be bridges built between Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, and others ‘of the centre and left’, to use his phrase. It ensures that he can have some of his words from last year pinned on him – that Labour under his leadership won’t oppose for the sake of it. He makes the case for AV fairly and reasonably, unlike NO2AV, whose ignorance and groundless claims have been rightly ridiculed from the start.

“Having words from the past pinned on you” draws me to my second tick against Edward’s actions. He has, quite rightly, ensured Nick Clegg is nowhere near the Yes campaign stage. Nick is currently on some kind of Deputy PM fact-finding tour in Mexico, speaking Spanish no less, so is as far away from the Yes crowd as could possibly be. This is very good news. Clegg’s “calamity” moments from the last election do tend to keep stacking up, not least his label “miserable little compromise” attached to the AV voting system he is now supporting.

Making the case for AV is absolutely vital for the wider constitutional health of our country. The chance for change is not mere rhetoric. Saying “No” to AV would mean slamming the door on almost every other reform agenda – the House of Lords especially, possibly even the proposals to allow binding referendums on council tax increases currently in the Localism Bill. Importantly “no” would mean “NO!” for generations. We would be lumbered, stuck, anchored to and disabled by the first-past-the-post system for decades to come, never again able to revisit the question of voting reform, trapped in the frigid Hell of small-c conservative opinions.

AV is not perfect, though it offers much more for our democratic process than FPTP ever would. It would stop this nonsense of candidates becoming very handsomely salaried law makers on 33% (or less) popularity in the constituency they claim to represent. Every candidate from all parties would need to work that little bit harder, sell their candidature that little bit harder, to ensure the magic 50% mark was reached. This silly “one person, one vote” campaign on the NO side, launched today, misses the point entirely. AV gives people ONE vote – just the ONE – which is given to candidates other than the initial leader under specific circumstances. There is no more “loonies deciding elections” than under FPTP (I have been around elections long enough to know how many people go into polling booths to choose one party as an alternative to their first preference, usually BNP or other extreme frapperies)

Making the case for AV means being able to concede that some problems with Coalition government is misplaced. Political rivals can, and should, work together. Political parties are not, here or anywhere, ‘walled gardens’. There can be shades of grey. Standing still, trapped within dogma, leads to stagnation. Making the small step to AV opens up the possibility of better, more proportional systems, and if STV is good enough for Scotland and if d’Hondt is good enough for Great Britain’s allocation to the European Parliament, then something over and beyond AV is surely decent enough for Westminster.

I agree with Edward. AV must pass. It may be the darkest irony that a Liberal Democrat leader cannot be associated with voting reform, but such sacrifices are often needed in the march towards the greater good. Join Ickle Ed and other progressives – and that includes the Liberal Democrats…and Nigel Farage…and vote YES to AV.