Would you rather...?
Glen Newey · The Referendum
Mid-April, and Britain attends to the 5 May referendum on the Alternative Vote with all the rapture of a gutted cod. Voters will be asked: ‘At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?’ This version of the question is a redraft, made at the Electoral Commission’s bidding. When the government published the original, one-sentence version last year, which rendered MPs in unabbreviated form, the commission worried that people would be too thick to understand it. Now campaigners merely worry that people are too thick to understand AV itself.
In pre-campaign polling, people were quizzed about the question. Debate raged over whether the new commission-approved wording favours a Yes response; results published in January by the pollsters ICM and Angus Reid suggested that it might. The outlier was YouGov, the anoraks’ playpen, where opinion divided 41 per cent to 32 cent against the view that the question’s phrasing was pro-AV. But this may well be because, in its polling, YouGov had inflicted on its subjects yet another version of the AV question, of no fewer than 139 words. This was always liable to reduce even hardened wonks to a state of dribbling accidie.
On 4 April the Telegraph, never one to miss the panic button when change looms, eagerly parroted the prime minister’s alarm that Britain might be ‘sleepwalking’ into AV. In fact, as recent polls and – usually a sounder guide – the bookies’ odds show, it’s far more likely that Britain is sleepwalking into more of the same old crap. Even the Telegraph had to acknowledge the next day that public ‘support’ for AV was ‘waning’. In truth, it had never waxed.
Not that, on any plausible measure of natural justice, the Yes campaign deserves to win. Their opponents’ no-change propaganda has certainly been asinine, suggesting that a range of worthies, from Afghanistan-based squaddies to neonate cardiac patients, will get hit if AV goes through. But the pro-AV case has been hobbled, to put it mildly, by the fact that its highest-profile champion is treated by his fellow Yes campaigners as the political equivalent of the Ebola virus. By contrast with the hapless deputy PM, Ed Miliband has played something of a blinder, continuing at least nominally to back reform while leaving the campaign, and its probable flop next month, as very much Nick Clegg’s baby.
Understandable schadenfreude about Clegg shouldn't blind anyone to the wider vacuity of the Yes campaign. Nobody has come up with a decent answer to the question of why a voter’s (n+1)th preference, where n may be rather large, should be able to count for as much as others’ first preference. The psephologically null concept of the 'wasted' vote has been dragged out like an ageing debutante for a final coquettish gallop. And the fallacy has been put about that AV gets rid of tactical voting. Not really. If my ranking of the candidates is A > B > C, my overriding aim is to stop C at all costs, and I’m confident that A will garner enough first-preference votes to survive the first round, I have reason to put B as my first preference. Not that there’s anything obviously wrong with tactical voting, anyway – why is it better to vote for the candidate you like most than against the one you like least?
No doubt all these issues will be revisited in the fervid intellectual debate that beckons over the coming weeks. If the issues pall, there are always celebrities to fall back on. Can’t be fagged to grasp the niceties of instant run-off ballots? No matter. Who would you sooner have a jar with: Eddie Izzard or Norman Tebbitt? Joanna Lumley or Jacob Rees-Mogg? Helena Bonham-Carter or Nick Griffin? Then you know how to vote. Or not.