The debate on the alternative vote system in the UK, if it can be called a debate, has been spectacularly rubbish.
The prospect of electoral reform was sold to us as part of a “new politics” in the wake of the expenses scandal and a general disillusionment with politicians. From the outset the debate around AV has been very, very old politics.
Who knew it was such a contentious issue? The information leaflet I received from the Electoral Commission about the referendum described clearly how AV and first-past-the-post work, but when it came to the heading ‘What are the arguments?’ it just said coyly that I’d have to look out for information from the two campaigns. Information, sadly, has been hard to come by amid all the misinformation and bluster.
Both sides have scrabbled to come up with the best analogy for why the other side’s system will spell the end of the world: boxing matches and horse races where the losers win, people shouting at MPs through megaphones, and pictures of babies with captions suggesting there’ll be no money for maternity units if we spend it all on… (I’m genuinely not sure where the argument goes from there.)
Neither has succeeded in communicating what their system is really about or why it’s better.
From the No camp we’ve had the claim that AV hands victory to the losers; the conflation of the switch to AV with the introduction of electronic voting machines (and made-up figures about how much they’d cost); and the bizarre argument that AV gives some people more votes than others, which is like saying that diners who order the duck when the duck’s off get two choices of dinner.
From the Yes side we’ve had a war veteran saying emotionally that he might has well have died on the D-Day beaches for all the say he’s had in elections, because we use first-past-the-post. Really? I mean, really?
Matt Golding of marketing agency Rubber Republic summed it up nicely on the Today programme yesterday: “I think both campaigns have managed to take what could have been a relatively interesting political debate and turn it into patronising and slightly misleading argument points that make the issue seem more complicated than it is and make it feel like you’re being talked down to.”
This is partly because, in the deals that formed the coalition government, the Tories – very cannily – only accepted a referendum on AV, not proportional representation. This left the Lib Dems having to support a system which nobody really wanted, and which Nick Clegg is on record as calling “a grubby little compromise”.
The “debate” on AV has only created more disillusionment and confusion. That’s probably not such bad news for the No campaign, since the confusion may well encourage voters to stick with the status quo. But both sides have missed an enormous missed opportunity to have a grown-up conversation about how we want this place to be run.