6 Jul 2010

Referendum: a question of self interest

The Alternative Vote referendum looks almost certain to get hijacked.

Clegg's announcement, that the referendum is set for next May, was widely leaked, and attacked in advance. The Coalition was, from its very inception, already formally split on the issue. The Tories said they'd agree to hold a referendum, but must be free to oppose it, which they will, because they'd lose seats under the new system. (So much for reforming politics. Oh yes, we'll improve the system as long as it doesn't affect our party.)

The Lib Dems, meanwhile, got the very least they could from the Tories - a referendum on AV, not on proper PR. In doing so, they split their own party, with stalwarts like Kennedy and Hughes open in their opposition to the deal. (Didn't stop Hughes joining the Government of course.)

Now the timetable's been announced, it's under huge attack. Not the referendum, the timetable. Ignoring the greater good of electoral reform for the benefit of British democracy, each side is happily sniping away, trying to fix or change the date of the vote in such as way as to benefit their team the most.

And that's just the timetable. Imagine what it will be like when the campaigning on the acutal vote starts. No-one will believe anything the parties say on the issue, because it will be quite clear they are choosing their arguments to fit their own political interests. As a result, voters will associate the question on the ballot paper less and less with the issue itself, and more on how they feel about the warring parties.

It may turn out to be an opinion poll on David Cameron, or on Nick Clegg, or on the new Labour leader, or any of countless other things. It's unlikely to be a considered answer to whether people want electoral reform.

Whilst AV is a hopelessly inadequate 'alternative' to proper PR, I do hope the system is changed in May next year. We urgently need reform, and AV is a step in the right direction. Once we've changed the system, people may be more inclined to grow up, join the 21st Century and go for proper PR like everyone else. If AV gets rejected, the issue's likely to be dead for a long time.

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