To AV or not to AV – what is the question?
There is a tremendous irony at the heart of the current debate on AV. Politicians of all persuasions are looking the electorate in the eye and telling us, as sincerely as they can, that we are the audience with the greatest stake in the issue of voting reform. But their internal debates suggest something rather different. Where does that leave us?
Those in favour of AV tell us how unrepresentative the current system is, how only about a third of MPs secure a majority of the votes in their constituency, how many MPs can effectively ignore the needs and votes of many of their constituents, how the existence of safe seats means some don’t even need to work hard to engage their core support, and how most voters are effectively disenfranchised by this situation.
Those in favour of FPTP invoke the ghoul of perpetual coalition government and compromise, the fact that second, third and fourth choices should not have the same weight as first choices, the relative complexity of AV, and even the fact that AV is too small a step and should be rejected in favour of something closer to PR. Oh, and the fact that the only countries in the world to use AV for national elections are Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji (which is apparently considering a change anyway).
These are all reasonable arguments, and positive reasons to engage with the question of electoral reform. They should in themselves persuade people that it matters to them and encourage them to think about it and vote on it.
And yet, when those same politicians look each other in the eye, the debate takes a rather different course. Those in favour of AV claim that FPTP is mainly being defended by politicians with a stake in it (mostly the Conservatives). Those in favour of FPTP claim AV is really being advanced as a mechanism for increasing the power of the Lib Dems.
In other words, the debate turns negative, and is about power for politicians, not power for the people. And politicians, let’s not forget, have the loudest voices on this issue, so people are well aware of their internal wranglings. The debate on Newsnight a couple of nights ago, in which four politicians spoke a lot and two non-politicians said less, was a case in point.
Isn’t this exactly what we don’t need? Our voting system is at the heart of the relationship between Parliament and the electorate, and all politicians acknowledge that something needs to be done to engage with us again (even if they can’t agree on how). Surely an extended debate on the future of that system should be taken as an opportunity to re-engage people, and to persuade them of the importance of their part in the electoral relationship? It would be a shame if it actually reinforces the disconnect between us.
It comes down to the question of what are we voting for in May – something that matters to us, or something that really concerns the fortunes of 650 (for now) MPs?