In the referendum debate, many commentators have played up the role of politicians – Nick Clegg and Vince Cable versus David Cameron, with Ed Miliband standing aloof to the Liberal Democrats but still pro-AV. Monica Threlfall argues that this Thursday’s vote is a vote for a specific political outcome and outlines how these outcomes might affect voting patterns.
More than a vote on two electoral systems, the 5 May Referendum now offers us a kind of symbolic plebiscite for or against change. Do you want to be part of an alliance of centre-left parties that promises some kind of progressive future? Then vote Yes to AV. Are you a traditionalist at heart, taking pride in First Past the Post (FPTP) as a symbol of British democratic history? Then vote No to AV. The substance in both symbolic offerings is hazy but that is precisely the point: the vote is no longer about electoral systems with specific mechanics that we need to grasp; it is about taking sides and supporting the politicians (and pundits and actors too) whose judgement regarding future scenarios we most trust.
Many Guardian-reading voters will be dismayed if Ed Miliband, Polly Toynbee and Martin Kettle turn out to have backed a lost cause, because their enthusiasm for AV is grounded in progressive political arguments that stand above any practical appreciation of AV as a system. The Economist-reading reformers can follow its strictly rationalist approach, which is to decide that if AV is flawed and does not offer tangible improvements on FPTP as an electoral system (which it is, and it doesn’t, though many are hoped for), then their option is a No vote, and to patiently wait for an ideal system.
In fact, it’s all about betting on a political outcome. Which of these predictions will come true?
While the 4th prediction clearly suits traditionalist conservers, electoral reformers are truly in a pickle! So the best path for reformers is probably to ‘Follow Your Leaders!’ and then hold them accountable to the scenario they have conjured up: some kind of Lib-Lab understanding that will marginalise the forces of the centre-right in British politics.
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