Sunday, 3 April 2011

I support AV but the debate about it sends me to sleep.

Did your heart start beating a little faster yesterday afternoon? It should have done because yesterday was the day when the campaign to get people to vote yes in the referendum on whether or not Britain adopts the Alternative Vote (AV) method for choosing its government was launched.

The launch event was attended by a legion of people who used to be quite famous in the 1990’s and are now mostly famous for being willing to put on the slap and turn up to the opening of an envelope. By teatime levels of apathy had reached fever pitch across the nation.

One time independent MP Martin Bell said that adopting AV would mean that our members of parliament would no longer be ‘elected by a minority’ whilst we were at the same time ‘going our and preaching democracy to the rest of the world.’

Former Olympic athlete Kriss Akabusi said that the current ‘first past the post’ system had ‘worked well in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’, but is no longer fit for purpose. He dismissed as ‘poppycock’ suggestions made by opponents of AV that changing the voting system would allow the likes of the BNP to enter the political mainstream.

A spokes person for the campaign against AV told the BBC that the launch event was a ‘glossy veneer’ covering a costly and divisive plan, highlighting the latter aspect by pointing out that Labour Leader Ed Milliband and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg refused to play nicely and share a platform even though they both support AV.

He went on to say that ‘At a time when people are seeing their pay frozen and the cost of living rising, why should they listen to a bunch of celebrities who are backing a plan to spend £250 million scrapping our fair voting system for one that gives some people more votes than others.’

It is time, I think, to lay a few cards on the table; I support AV and will be voting for it in the referendum next month even though like many supporters I recognise it as the ‘least worst’ of the two options on offer. I will be supporting AV for one very simple reason, I believe that democracy in the UK is in a mess; too many seats are so safe they have become baubles to be handed out by powerful party managers, public trust in politicians has slumped to an all time low; something has to change and fast.

AV is far from a perfect solution, it is too fiddly to grab the interest of a voting public that has always been marked by its lower case conservatism and too timid for the liking of those of us who are hungry for real change; but it is a start. If a majority of the voting public can be persuaded that making this one comparatively small change won’t result in the sky falling down on our heads than it might be possible to start a mature discussion about one day embracing proportional representation.

What sticks in my craw though is the way that both sides of the debate have conspired, probably I’ll admit unconsciously, to turn what should have been a defining moment into a dispiriting playground squabble. The ‘No’ campaign have spent months filling the airwaves with emotive and inaccurate claims that AV will cost £250 million, meaning that hospitals will close and our brave troops will have to go into battle in Afghanistan or, heaven forbid Libya, armed with little more than sharpened sticks, the ‘Yes’ campaign seem to think we the voting public will only take an interest in politics if it is sold to us by celebrities who are themselves slightly past their sell by date.

None of this constitutes a reasoned and mature political debate; but it does tell you everything you need to know about the state of British politics in the second decade of the twenty first century. That two supposedly intelligent politicians with a common standpoint on an issue refuse to share a platform is a perfect example of the silly, divisive and counter productive nature of our political discourse and the best argument for change.

If we have the courage to reform the voting system noisy tribalism will have had its day, parties of all hues will have to work together for the common good. That is why however leaden the campaign for it I will be voting for AV and, I hope in a few years time for proportional representation.

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