Unfortunately the question that will, if the legislation gets passed, be asked in May 2011 is not about STV, it's all about the Alternative Vote:
Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the 'alternative vote' system instead of the current 'first past the post' system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?
It's the answer to that question that I (and you) need to decide on. But before we can, there's a lot of controversy over the legislation. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill is contentious for a number of reasons. The first is the date the referendum is due to be held on. It coincides with other elections, and people feel that the message may be diluted or people confused due to the campaign getting mixed in with others.
On the people getting confused front, I have to say I'm very dubious about this argument. We've managed to run different elections on the same day without confusion (except in some cases where there are different voting systems being used at once). And many US states manage to hold various elections and "referendums" on the same day without anybody screaming "I just don't understand!!!". But the idea that the message might get mixed up with the election campaigns is one that has merit. Alas I think it does make sense, both for turnout reasons and for financial reasons, to hold the AV referendum at the same time as other elections. It's another compromise, but we've already made one massive one (AV over PR!) so why people seem more worried by this than the basic fact PR isn't on the ballot, I don't know!
The more controversial part of the Bill is to do with constituency sizes. The proposal is to bring down the number of constituencies to 600, and to equalise the size of the electorates in each (as far as possible).
Part of this controversy centres around some claims that this is "gerrymandering", ignoring completely that the Government will not actually carry out the boundary review but simply set the rules for it. I will not address these concerns as they are, quite simply, partisan attacks.
The more sensible and considered criticism of this reform is that the boundaries may cross natural borders and local Government jurisdictions, a headache for candidates, campaigns and electorates. Also there's issue with the speed of this reform (taking place just before a census), and with it's ability to calculate the number of electors in a region. There's a good piece on this on Open Democracy. I'm not going to answer these criticisms because I wholeheartedly agree with them and hope that these can be worked out in the debates and votes in Parliament *chortles merrily to himself about the idea that MPs might focus on sensible considerations*
So whether the Bill gets passed is still up for argument. Let's imagine if it does. I think there will be a few camps in the AV referendum including:
For the Yes vote:
- Those who favour AV as their system of choice
- Those who favour PR but are putting their faith in AV as a "step in the right direction"
- Those who favour PR, know we're not going to get it just yet, so are supporting the campaign as a last resort (that's me included)
- The "liberal" partisans of the Coalition who see this as just another battle against anti-Coalition sorts.
For the No vote:
- Those who favour FPTP as their system of choice (right wing Tories, some Labourites)
- Those who favour PR and are NOT going to compromise (they have my sympathies, but I suspect this will be a very small, invisible grouping)
- Tories who are outraged by the Coalition and wish to thumb their noses at it
- Labourites and other anti-Coalition "lefties" who wish to "hurt" the Lib Dems because of their "betrayal"
I think those who favour FPTP are actually a small group as the status quo really doesn't really inflame one's soul. So, based on where I think the various camps sit, the strength of cohesive, passionate argument certainly seems to fall on the pro-AV side. The danger is allowing "politics" to get involved.
We all saw and felt what happened in the country during the expenses scandal. A dislike of politicians generally and an urge among a lot of people for change. This is what helped create the "Clegg bubble" that so excited us all during the election (even if it came to nothing but a small increase in the Lib Dem vote). People were desperate for "another way". The AV campaign must embrace that feeling, and try to be as sensible, unpartisan and creative as possible.
I live in a constituency where a Tory being elected is as predictable as the Sun rising in the morning. That shouldn't be the way politics works. The majority of us who didn't vote for the Tory should still get a say in our representative in Parliament. It's so simple a message, and it's the one major argument that I see getting people onboard with the Yes campaign. It needs to focus on FPTP's role in corruption (across the parties), in it's inability to shift MPs of certain parties in certain areas, and it's lack of choice.
That's why I want AV (I'm under no illusions it's a "stepping stone" to PR). I want the right to be able to say that if my first preference doesn't win by more than 50% of the vote (and neither does anyone else) then my vote can go to someone else (who might not be my favourite but is preferably not a Tory). So I'll be voting Yes in the AV referendum and I'll be happily campaigning for the Yes campaign here in Folkestone and Hythe.
If we can avoid it becoming a partisan issue, once (and if) the relevant legislation is passed, and get support from sensible pro-AV people in all the parties, we can win the argument. Because the arguments for FPTP aren't up to much. The only thing that stands in the way is if the referendum becomes a referendum not on our electoral system but on whether you like the Government or not. If that happens, it will be a great stain upon our political party system, and a great shame for democracy.
If you feel benevolent and particularly generous, this writer always appreciates things bought for him from his wishlist