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Tuesday, May 03, 2011 

Don't cut off your nose to spite your face - vote yes on Thursday.

It's one thing being a bad winner, it's something else entirely to be one when the result has not yet been decided. Hopefully Dan Hodges and those like him already calling Thursday's referendum for the no campaign will provide the ultimate incentive for those still undecided, of which there are many, to cast their ballot to change the voting system from first past the post to the alternative vote.

For if we should take any lessons from the dispiriting, unremittingly awful campaigns ran by both the yes and no teams, it's that a plebiscite on something so vital as the very means by which we elect those who represent us should not have been left in the hands of the political class. One of the main reasons among many that I'm not on Twitter is that if I were, I know I'd be permanently commenting on politics rather than just doing it once a day, and amongst a whole quivering mass of other people who seem to spend their entire time doing little else, whittling away the hours having pointless, circular arguments with each other, or even worse, circle-jerking into the night with those of like-minds. Politics in its current state, involving the people for whom it really is their life, is not just depressing, it's suicide inducing in its dirtiness, unbearable in its insularity and truly spectacular in its universal contempt for the average voter.

The no campaign, it's fair to say, really has treated the general public as fools. Taking the metaphor of an actual race and then extrapolating it to a system where you vote for who you think should be the winner is just about as breath-taking in its disingenuousness as it comes; politics is many things, but it has not yet come down to a competition where the person who can run the 100 metres the fastest becomes prime minister. The yes campaign meanwhile has comprehensively failed to explain why the alternative vote would be a better system than what we currently have in the key context of how the previous two-party dominance of politics in this country has broken down. Instead it's focused on how AV will make MPs work harder, when there is precisely no evidence whatsoever that this will be the case, and how it will end jobs for life, which is laughably wrong. The main reason many are disenchanted with politics is due to either how their vote effectively doesn't count, and how little difference there actually is between the parties and their policies.

First past the post was a defensible system when the vast majority voted for one of two main parties. In the 1970 general election, just short of 90% cast a ballot for either Labour or the Conservatives, on a turnout of 72%. Last year 65% did the same on a turnout of, err, 65%. Spooky. The unfairness of this situation manifests itself most clearly in the case of sadly, the Liberal Democrats. Having won a 23% share of the vote, an improvement of 1% on 2005, they actually lost 5 seats overall for a total of 57. Labour, despite polling just 1,600,000 more votes, won 201 more seats than the party which came in third. No one can say with a straight face on votes cast that the Liberal Democrats have a fair distribution of seats in parliament.

Sadly, this doesn't make AV even approaching the best solution, and the yes campaign has been left with going all out for a system which the vast majority of those supporting it don't genuinely believe in. Into this vacuum have come the very people with the most to lose and most to gain, and the debate, if there was going to be one based on the realities rather than parties' short-term benefit, was swiftly crushed underfoot. The Conservatives are unsurprisingly incredibly happy with a system that provides them in the good times with decent, workable majorities in parliament, as are the more boneheaded Labour tribalists who think the same, and anyone who suggests this might now be unsustainable and undemocratic can go take a running jump. Their campaign (and it has been their campaign) has been personal, nasty and misleading.

The Liberal Democrats, instead of sticking to pointing out just how the current system increasing doesn't reflect the will of the people, rose to the bait, and how. For a party that has itself descended into the sewer on occasion, anyone would think they were the purest of the pure, so outraged have they become at how the Conservatives have been prepared to stiff them even while they're meant to be working together in the "national interest". Nick Clegg has been further vilified for making the very compromises which the Conservatives asked of his party, which while low is exactly what those who loathe having to deal with them were always going to. Chris Huhne in response has spent the entire campaign acting like a spoilt child, threatening to take legal action and then finally today taking it to the cabinet, which the Tories swiftly leaked. They know full well just how this playing, as they've successfully made clear how the Liberal Democrats would be the main beneficiaries of any change even when that would be a just outcome.

Dan Hodges was right in his original riling post that the yes campaign had no edge because it wasn't prepared to play by the same measures. The only other way it could have properly countered the no message was by rising completely above the fray, making sure that politicians stayed out of it, and instead got in some celebrities and personalities other than the odd luvvie and Eddie Izzard to ram home the message of how out of date first the past post is and how we're effectively being cheated. Even then it was doubtful it could have properly made the case for a system which is a slight improvement, but it might just have had some effect. Failing that, the yes campaign should have shouted night and day about just how much the Conservatives and the Labour dinosaurs have to lose from even this slight change, which is exactly why they've relied on such sleight of hand. As much as I despise Facebook, that only 15,000 have liked the Yes campaign in the age of the social networks shows how it's failed.

I still think the result will be closer than the polls are suggesting, and that there's still a slight chance of a victory. This will only be achieved now though if we rise above the politics involved entirely, and especially dispense with the nonsense of how a yes or no vote will impact on the coalition. Forget about the government, and the stupidity of cutting off your nose to spite your face by delaying electoral reform in favour of possibly bringing down the coalition sooner - vote yes on Thursday for the reason that it will make a slight improvement to our current political system. And who other than masochists could possibly suggest following this debacle that they would genuinely prefer the status quo?

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