YOU may have missed it but the campaigns for and against the alternative vote (AV) are now underway with mud flying between both sides.
You may also have missed what the referendum is all about.
On May 5 you’ll be asked to choose how you would like to elect your MP.
You can support the current first-past-the-post system where the candidate with the most ‘Xs’ wins the seat.
Or you can back AV, which allows you to rank candidates using scary things called numbers.
The proposed new system works like this.
If a candidate gets more than half of the votes they win.
If no-one gets a majority, the back-markers are eliminated and their “2” votes are redistributed among the survivors until someone gets over the 50% threshold.
AV may be, as Nick Clegg said, “a miserable little compromise”, but it’s still a significant improvement on the current regime.
First-past-the-post is a great blunt cudgel of an electoral system which is beating the sense out of British politics in three ways.
Firstly, it is not proportional, meaning votes cast do not translate into seats won in the House of Commons.
Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair both achieved thumping majorities in Parliament, despite getting less than 50% of the vote.
Why does this matter? Simple. We’re supposed to be living in a democracy and Parliament is meant to reflect the will of the people.
The make-up of House of Commons doesn’t have to mirror votes cast down to the last decimal point, but it should at least bear some passing similarity.
If a party can’t win 50% of the votes, what right does it have to the keys to Downing Street?
The second great problem with the current system is that it creates hundreds of safe seats – places like Barnsley, which are always Labour, and true blue North Yorkshire, which would elect a donkey in a Tory rosette.
The results in these seats are a formality, encouraging apathy among both elector and elected.
The real battle takes place in a relatively small number of swing seats, such as Colne Valley and Dewsbury.
This brings us to the third great problem of first-past-the-post – tactical voting.
In marginal seats people who support minor parties are urged not to ‘waste’ their vote, but to back whichever of the potential winners they find the least loathsome.
AV addresses these three major problems to varying degrees. It does away with tactical voting, reduces the number of safe seats and leads to slightly more proportional results.
The alternative vote is far from perfect, but I’ll take it over the current broken system any day of the week.
Nothing I’ve seen from the ‘no’ camp so far has caused me to question this view.
The campaign group NO2AV assure us that the proposed reform is “complicated, expensive and unfair”.
Let’s take those one at a time.
Is the alternative vote a complicated system? I tell you what, dear reader, I’ll explain how to use AV and you can decide whether it’s beyond your powers of comprehension.
Here goes: You put a ‘1’ next to your favourite candidate then, if you feel like carrying on, you put a ‘2’ next to your second favourite candidate.
And can anyone guess what you put next to your third favourite candidate? That’s right: you put a ‘3’ next to their name.
Well done, everyone. Gold stars all round.
As a former teacher I’m confident I could explain that concept to a class of six-year-olds in all of two minutes.
I would give them each a piece of paper with three animals on it and tell them to number the pictures 1, 2, 3 according to which they liked the most.
NO2AV also warns us that the alternative vote would be expensive to run.
Extensive back-of-a-fag-packet research has yielded the figure of £250m.
This includes £130m for “costly electronic vote-counting machines” which apparently will be needed to cope with AV.
Now let me think. Is there some kind of non-electronic vote-counting machine which could get the job done for less?
It would have to be something which could recognise different numbers, put bits of paper in piles and then count them.
I’ve got it! Human beings.
The very machines we already use to count votes. Thank the Lord, I’ve saved the country millions.
OK, so we’ve got the pictures of animals to explain AV and we’ve asked the people who usually count the votes to go on counting the votes.
But what about the alleged unfairness of AV?
According to opponents of the system it undermines the principle of “one person, one vote”.
It’s unjust, they say, for minor party supporters to get lots of bites at the cherry while the big parties’ voters only have their ballot counted once.
But the fact is that AV allows everyone – whether they support Labour or the Monster Raving Loony Party – to choose to vote right down the ballot paper or to stop at ‘1’.
And no-one at any stage of an AV count has more than one vote in play.
If the candidate to whom you gave a ‘1’ to is still in the hunt, your ‘2’ is not counted.
That, I would humbly suggest, is one person, one vote.