On the 5th of May you will get the chance to vote in a referendum. As a political landmark (the first UK-wide referendum since 1975), we should all be feeling pretty excited. Direct democracy, the empowered people. But somehow the reaction to this particular referendum has been lukewarm to say the least.
The referendum is on the voting system we use to elect our MPs; ‘first past the post’ or a new system called ‘alternative vote’ (AV). There is now a campaign in progress for both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to the AV system but both campaigns seem to struggle to find convincing arguments to persuade us.
Firstly, it is worth pointing out that despite what its critics claim AV is not a complex voting system. It is very simple. Rather than casting one vote for your preferred candidate in a general election you number the candidates in order of preference. If a candidate gets over 50 per cent of the first choices they win. If no-one gets more than 50 per cent, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their second and third choice votes are redistributed. This continues until a candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote. So what effect will this have on results? The answer to that is even simpler. None.
neither side can claim one system is more democratic than the other
It would be fantastic to argue with conviction either for or against the AV system but the truth is that it really does not matter either way. This is apparent from the campaigns on both sides. Neither side can claim one system is more democratic than the other. The major criticism of ‘first past the post’ is that unless you vote for the winning candidate your vote does not count – so called wasted votes. Yet this is still true under the AV system, regardless how many preferences someone has. To test just how much effect the AV system would have had the BBC has calculated the outcomes of every election since 1983 if the AV system had been used. The result? Not one single election outcome would have been different. So then, why AV?
Perhaps one of the reasons it is difficult to have strong feelings on the issue is because politicians themselves are not excited about AV. The Liberal Democrats, the pre-election supporters of electoral reform, did not mention AV in their manifesto, neither (unsurprisingly) did the Tories. It is obvious that AV is the product of a Coalition compromise; the Lib Dems wanted Proportional Representation, a completely different electoral system, and the Tories would never have accepted this. Instead we are being offered a system that nobody really wants or cares about.
So, in conclusion, all I can say is vote whichever way you like, it will not have a meaningful impact but perhaps we should be asking if this is the right time to be holding referendums on politically inconsequential decisions.