So we are going to get a referendum on the voting system (for Westminster elections) next year. For most of England this will be the first referendum for over thirty years – I say most, because of course, the people of Manchester had a referendum much more recently (on the 'TiF Bid/Congestion Charge).
At first glance these two referenda, one on transport the other on voting reform, have little in common. On the contrary I can see a lot of similarities.
In the Transport referendum the majority of green-leaning groups, such as Friends of the Earth campaigned for a Yes vote, but there were many, including myself, who felt that what we were offered had so many flaws that we couldn't get behind it with any real enthusiasm. There were some Green Party activists who felt for sound reasons that a No vote was the right response.
In the Alternative Vote referendum coming up, I can see remarkably similar lines being drawn. I only have to look at my inbox – the day after the referendum announcement I received 2 emails almost simultaneously. One was from Vote for a Change' gushing with 'amazing news' and a 'huge victory', and of course urging me to campaign for a 'yes' vote; the other from a respected Green Party colleague inviting me to join the Facebook Group 'No to AV – Yes to PR', and calling for a No Vote.
What will guide me in whether I vote Yes or No (or abstain altogether for that matter) when the referendum comes, is which outcome will do least damage to our transition to a genuinely proportional system. Will a Yes vote be taken as 'Well we've gone to all that trouble to change the system, we're not changing it again' or will a No vote be taken as 'people don't want to change from the present system so its off the agenda for a long long time'. If I vote Yes it won't be with any enthusiasm whatsoever. What we are being offered is completely the wrong referendum (and at the wrong time too – more of that later).
What should have happened was a healthy open debate about the different voting systems, along with wider constitutional issues (what is happening with the House of Lords?, what about voting reform for local councils?) engaging as much of the electorate as possible. This would be followed by a referendum offering a range of choices, as it was done in New Zealand when they changed their voting system. Instead we're being granted an artificial choice between two systems which are only marginally different in their effect, a feeble offering from a bunch of establishment politicians looking to entrench/advance their own Parties' positions. Why don't groups like 'Vote for a Change' stop drooling over this pathetic choice and start campaigning for real Change?
Wrong time too – holding it the same day as the local, Scottish and Welsh elections, presumably in an attempt to boost the turnout. It will be particularly strange for voters in Scotland; as well as casting their votes for the Scottish Parliament and local councils, using two different voting systems, they'll be asked to vote between two different, and worse, systems for Westminster. Far better to keep such votes separate so that voters can concentrate on one set of issues at a time. It may well be a bad time for the coalition too, as their cuts begin to bite. It smacks of desperation on the part of the Liberal Democrats, as their influence within the coalition seems to be slipping.
The TiF bid/Congestion Charge proposal was heavily defeated. With many supporters only too aware of flaws, a hostile media, and tarnished by a close association with the political establishment, it's not surprising in retrospect that it lost. My feeling at the moment is that the Alternative Vote referendum will go the same way.
PS for description of different voting systems see – Electoral Reform Society – but note they are very evangelical about the Single Transferable Vote system so take any bias into account.