The most striking image of the AV referendum campaign so far has been the appearance of the ‘odd couple’, David Cameron and John Reid, to make the case for no change.
Perhaps it’s not so odd really. One characteristic shared by both Cameron and Reid is that they both held parliamentary seats where their majority was so great that they never had any real worry about the opinions and attitudes of the voters in their constituencies (58.8% of the 2010 vote in Tory Witney and 58.2% in Labour Airdrie and Shotts).
In their seats the result of every General Election was certain – a monotonous ‘No Change’. In their constituencies voters never ever had the realistic power to choose an MP from any other than the usual Party. That is true for the 34% of MPs who were elected in 2010 with more than 50% of the vote. And another 25% won with between 45% and 50% support.
For 3 in 5 MPs the personal challenge was to get their Party to nominate them in the first place, and to make sure that they keep Party support. That achieved, they never really have to worry very much about the attitude of their electorate. Their own re-elections are virtually certain whatever else happens.
The Alternative Vote would begin to change that. Every MP would need to think more of their accountability to their electors and less of their accountability to their Party. Whilst the ‘supersafe’ parliamentary constituencies would remain so, the majority of constituencies would become ones where every vote really does count and the MP has to take that into account in every aspect of their behaviour.
That is why the most important effects of a ‘Yes’ vote in the AV ballot on May 5th will be to increase the powers of individual voters and to strengthen the relationship between a constituency and its MP – a win for ‘localism’ and open politics; a defeat for centralised party machines.
Despite the claims of the Liberal Democrats, a vote for AV is not a step towards proportional representation - which itself gives all power to the political parties and not much to the electors – but towards a stronger constituency relationship which really is the foundation of our parliamentary democracy.
The second characteristic shared by Cameron and Reid is that they are authentic voices of the traditional, deeply centralised political parties. So it should be no surprise that, frightened by the real possibility of a ‘Yes’ vote on May 5th, they decided to join together to try and preserve the system that so effectively keeps their power in place. John Reid’s claim that the current electoral system is in the national interest but conveys no party advantage is disingenuous to say the least.
I hope that on May 5th voters will take the opportunity to change our electoral system in a way which will improve the accountability of MPs to their constituency, encourage positive not negative politics, encourage long-term and consensual political conduct and, by reducing the number of 'safe' seats, encourage political parties to be more outward looking.
It’s an opportunity we should seize.