Party politics: Why Yes to AV is right up our street

<i>The IoS</i> debates voting systems with bunting and cupcakes
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There's less than a fortnight to go until the referendum on the alternative vote, and things have got a bit messy, haven't they? We agree that the campaign on both sides has been a little unedifying: David Cameron and Nick Clegg are at war; there are accusations of smears and dark arts, myths and counter-myths. And yes, things have got a bit bogged down in the technicalities of different systems.

So, with Britain enjoying a Mediterranean April, The Independent on Sunday decided to borrow from another happy event happening somewhere else and throw a Yes to AV Street Party to celebrate the opportunity for democracy the 5 May poll offers.

Armed with trestle tables, metres of bunting and boxes of cupcakes and crisps, we decamped to Vauxhall, south London, with volunteers from the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign to drum up support for AV.

Of course, all guests to our party were given cupcakes – paid for by The IoS – regardless of their leanings.

Anyone who was walking past, enjoying their lunch hour in the sun, was invited. Notwithstanding our backing for AV, our cupcakes were decorated in cross-party colours: red for Labour, blue for Conservative, yellow for Lib Dem and green for Green.

We spoke to more than 200 people and – though this wasn't exactly a scientific poll – found many were undecided about how they would vote next week. There was some bafflement as to why we were holding a street party without William and Kate mugs and Union Flag bunting, and, OK, some just wanted free cake and a cool drink.

But once we got people talking, there was a surprising enthusiasm to debate the issue. The No campaign is ahead in the polls – the latest surveys give it between a 2- and 16-point lead. So we were surprised when we found more people said they would vote Yes than No. Some even approached our sun-drenched table asking where they could sign up to do some last-minute canvassing.

This weekend the Yes campaign faces an uphill struggle to turn the polls around, and a No vote on 5 May is looking likely. But here at The IoS we're always up for a challenge, and gamely partied on regardless.

Accountant Kevin Edwards, 28, from Epsom, said he'd already made his mind up. "I will vote for AV. I think it will stir political debate and consensus towards the people generally and make politicians more aware."

Deborah Hyde, 40, acknowledged that the nation hasn't really been seized by the campaign – perhaps because of the negative tone it has taken.

"I don't think Britain generally takes the idea of vote reform very seriously," she said, cupcake in hand. "For so long we led the world in terms if democracy, and now we don't. I think Cameron has been deliberately misleading people in some of his comments on the vote. I'm definitely going to vote yes."

But lawyer Mike Buckworth, 28, echoed Mr Clegg's original assessment of AV as a "miserable little compromise". He said: "I think this a politically motivated referendum. It's a compromise between the Lib Dems, who really want proportional representation, and the Conservatives, who really want first past the post.

"Ultimately I'd like to see proportional representation in the UK, but I fear that voting for AV now could pin us down us with an imperfect system for many years."

We found very little evidence from our street party-goers that they were confused by the proposed system. But for those who have been left behind by endless rows over the merits of first past the post versus AV, we explain it in simple terms (below).

This weekend both sides are preparing for a final week of campaigning. The Yes vote could be helped in Wales and Scotland as both will see a higher turnout in devolved administration elections. Turnout in London is said to be an unknown quantity. Strategists believe Conservative and Liberal Democrat voters are already broadly decided, with 80 per cent of each backing No and Yes respectively. It is the Labour vote where it is all to play for – explaining why Mr Clegg and Vince Cable yesterday both pitched for the "progressive alliance" between Ed Miliband's party and the Lib Dems. The Labour vote is split 50-50 between Yes and No camps.

However, the Yes campaign fears it is being outspent by the No side, and following an online appeal to members of the public, Yes to Fairer Votes received £14,000 from 500 donors, to be spent on leaflets this weekend.

How it works: One alternative vote and a packet of crisps

The problem with a street party – or any buffet-based bash – is that you are taking risks with the snacks. Being able to tell the flavour of crisps by sight alone is not easy. To be sure you are not landed with, urgh, roast chicken, far better to send someone to the shops to get a packet just for you. And so the metaphor begins...

Scenario one You hand over £1 for a bag of crisps and tell your pal you want salt and vinegar – a popular flavour. But it seems the shelves were bereft of green packets, and so you must make do with someone else's choice.

Scenario two You hand over £1 for a bag of crisps and tell your pal you want salt and vinegar. If not, your second preference would be cheese and onion; failing that, ready salted. Helpful friend/butler toddles off to the shops and returns with cheese and onion. You have still paid £1 only once but got something closer to your ideal outcome.

As in nibbles, so in electoral reform. First past the post gives you one shot at deciding the outcome. You name your one and only choice of who should be your MP and that's your lot.

The alternative vote allows you to express a preference, but does not give multiple votes. Under AV, voters rank candidates in order of preference.

If, after all the first preferences are counted, no candidate has received 50 per cent of the vote to be declared the winner, the bottom candidate is eliminated and all their second preferences are redistributed. All the votes are counted again. If still no one has 50 per cent, the process is repeated.

No metaphor works perfectly, obviously, but the crisp run shows how people express preferences every day – suggesting it is not as complicated as opponents claim. On 5 May, there is a chance to embed this straightforward thinking into our electoral system. Just don't eat the ballot paper.

Matt Chorley

Which way will you vote?


John Afari, 69, retired

At first I didn't really know what they were talking about. Now, though I think it is a more complicated system, it does seem fairer.

Sam Bailey, 26, charity fundraiser, Macmillan Cancer Support

With AV, you could vote for a small party, while also saying which of the larger parties you prefer.

Eleanor Oxford, 30, office manager

First past the post has never made my vote count and it allows the views of one or two parties to dominate. Coalitions can work if there is balance.

Jo Hawton, 25, administrator for Marie Curie

The way we are voting now is not working because no one is happy. A new way is not necessarily a bad way.

Jahid Hossain, 38, public service, Wandsworth

The voting system needs to change. At the moment politicians can do whatever they like. They should help people more.


Mike Buckworth, 28, lawyer

I'd like to see proportional representation, but I fear that voting for AV now could pin us down us with an imperfect system.

Jenna Soame, 26, Big Issue volunteer manager

I've seen the effect of the spending cuts in my work, and think we need an overhaul and rethink of politics.

Max Julius, 27, journalist

I was in Israel, where they have proportional representation, and the government is weakened by constant coalition-building.

James Grimley, 42, debt purchaser

I was going to vote yes but the campaign has not been clear. Something has to change but I am not sure this is it.

Helen Salter, 67, retired

People have lost trust in politicians. They're a stone's throw from where I live in Lambeth, but they haven't a clue what life is like there.