Lee Rotherham: AV: not in the national interest and the wrong referendum

The National Interest

The broader reasons for campaigning for a No will probably be comprehensively familiar. It is bad for the country. It complicates the British electoral system by giving voters another system they have to get their heads around, a particular nuisance for those already dealing with devolved government. Voting becomes more complicated, leading to a higher spoil rate and increased frustration, together with a much higher number of ballot challenges.

At the same time, recounts become vastly more difficult to administer, and form just one element of why the new form of election will slow to a crawl (which we know from 2010 can have damaging effects upon both the Markets, and the political neutrality of the civil service). Paradoxically, the shift to AV will encourage MPs operating under the new system to claim an increased mandate, resulting of all things in an increased divide between politicians and their voters. Then there is the physical cost.

The Scottish Parliament demonstrated how changes will cost tens of millions of pounds, as automated ballot reading machines are needed in place of human tellers, carrying with them new maintenance and training costs, as well as storage bills since they have to be maintained in a secure environment.

On top of that, there will be educational costs as the voter will inevitably be subjected to a media campaign explaining to him and to her how the new voting system works. It’s tens of millions of Pounds of waste during a period of national cut backs, and it will be a consultant’s nirvana.

It’s seventh heaven for one of the political parties in particular. AV strengthens the electoral position of the Liberal Democrats, who as the centre party are the only ones placed to form the permanent member of any coalition. It therefore gifts them a permanent role in national policy-making. In turn, this makes the twenty first century the Liberal Century, since although it will always be a coalition party – and even quite possibly always the junior partner – it will be the one to have long term influence pushing a Liberal political agenda that it can incessantly guide through alliances alternatively with the Left and the Right.

But for members of a political party such as UKIP that has a more sentimental attachment to the country’s traditions, it is more an act of constitutional vandalism. Such change endangers other existing institutions, and we are shaking up a system that has been around for centuries. The use of First Past the Post dates back to mediaeval times, when representatives were chosen by rowdy and sometimes violent acclamation. In essence, the principle reaches back into the localism of the Saxon South that Offa suppressed. By Pitt’s time while if we enjoyed a rare democracy on the planet’s surface it of course had its flaws. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries correspondingly comprised the decades of reform, an era of extending the franchise, cutting corruption, and creating a national democracy. But First Past the Post remained.

Since 1997 by contrast the reformists have been a more white-coated bunch. Far from seeing the selfsacrifice of the suffragettes, we are today witnessing an obsessive experiment with nineteenth century blueprints. We are living in a period of electoral Esperanto. It’s a long way from fighting for the rights of those deported to Australia, as we debate a muddled political retro-import from it; the obsession of a Liberal Democrat party that is careless with democracy and indifferent about sovereignty.

The Wrong Referendum

In truth we are facing completely the wrong referendum. A referendum on Lisbon was pledged and not provided; a referendum on AV is being provided when nobody wanted one. We have a broken pledge being replaced by an irrelevant promise. In providing us with this multi-million pound ethereal debate, Nick Clegg is distracting us from the very real issue of the EU. Increasingly, the British public is expressing its support for a genuine referendum on In or Out. It’s a referendum that the Lib Dems, the archetype of the AV vote, themselves actually called for in their manifesto.

Time here is of the essence. Consider what will be taking place in the time remaining before the referendum. In the course of the 4 months preceding this referendum, £2.75 billion will be transferred net to the Bank of Brussels, lost for good. It will go in the form of no fewer than eight cheques, each signed off to the tune of £800 million gross every fortnight. £3 billion of new red tape will be agreed at Brussels, set out on 5,000 new documents thrown online at EURLEX. 300 farmers will go out of business. Some 17,000 tonnes of prime fish will be dumped dead back into the sea by English fishing vessels alone.

Time is of the essence, and debating electoral reform distracts us all from the time-pained issue of sovereignty reform.

It is not even if it is a good reform. The supporters of AV today almost universally have track record attacking it in the past – and that’s just the people running the campaign. Nick Clegg, the Godfather of AV, famously called it a “miserable little compromise.” This is understandable when one recalls it is no more than a political fix, a compromise no one wanted (Peter Mandelson excepted: he has been consistent on the subject). As no-one’s first choice, AV is itself the second choice vote of political reform. But it comes with a huge price tag for those who believe that the current political system does need fixing.

Whether you are a supporter of AV+ or the Single Transferrable Vote, if the Yes campaign wins in the referendum there will be no further reform for a generation. The new system will need time to ‘bed in’ and be tested, and there will be no appetite to make additional costly changes. If you believe that a genuine debate is needed on reforming the British electoral system, voting Yes kills that prospect; but rejecting it keeps PR on the table.

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