If it aint broke don't fix it. Listen to your heart. What do those two clichés have in common? No, they are not anagrams of each other. They both apply to the febrile debate we are undergoing for constitutional change.
I realise that while there is a certain allure to the comments of the likes of David Gower (the man famous for having his finger on the pulse of socio-political reform and issues of democratic equity) as a sportsman, he is bound to argue for first past the post. In sport there are just winners and losers. (As a season-ticket holder at Arsenal few can accuse me of not being fully conversant with the concept of being a recidivist loser.)
But sport isn't politics. Politics isn't binary. Our system of election is fundamentally flawed, rotten from the core. It is broken ergo we must fix it. And the Alternative Vote is a noble attempt to fix it.
One learns a lot about one's own political views upon hearing the counter arguments. I was at Downing Street last week, part of a contingent of British Sikhs hastily pulled together to "celebrate" Vaisakhi, Sikh New Year. (We Sikhs are used to being afterthoughts.) I found myself in conversation with Baroness Warsi. Personally, I really like her. I think she's a good sort that gets a bad press. However our exchange about the referendum left me perplexed. I understand that conservatives conserve, but to argue against AV by suggesting first past the post is a better idea seems utterly redundant.
The political landscape has changed dramatically over the last few years. The expenses scandal was the catalyst for conceptual change. One might argue that a system that returns some Members of Parliament to Westminster with as little as 30 per cent of their constituency voting for them is well and truly undemocratic and so not fit for purpose.
It seems a tad ironic that our troops fight on three Middle Eastern fronts to enable the delivery of popular democracy to their citizens when we fail to sustain the self-same democracy at home.
"But that is the system we have," I am told. Really? How about we change the system to make it fairer. "No," they tell me. "Why?" I ask. "Because then we will have unstable coalitions and extremist parties being elected." Simply not true. AV will lead to no greater incidence of hung parliaments. And if AV were good for the lunatic fringe (by which I mean the BNP) why are they in the No camp?
Let me deal with those famous excuses that are the bedrock of our current constitutional corruption.
1) Our public services are undergoing significant changes under a coalition government that lacks anything but clarity in its decisions. The Clegg/ Cameron axis has managed to drive through policies that will change the lives of a generation of Britons. Not a great deal of instability there. (It would, however, be nice to know what the Lib Dems actually stood for these days; I'm fairly sure after the next election that they will have a few decades in the political wilderness to remind each other about liberalism and democracy.) Besides, the people choose the politicians. If no single party manages to capture the public's imagination then they will have to find a way to govern through consent. It seems to work across Europe.
2) I don't like the BNP. Obviously. Never have; even the pre re-badged version, the National Front, didn't appeal much. Just because I don't like them, doesn't mean I should stop others voting for them. I'd like to try to convince others not to vote for them, but there is a price to democracy and allowing parties like the BNP is a price we must be prepared to pay. If we lose the political argument about immigration (I would list other things the BNP stands for, but they would appear to pretty much be a single-issue party) then we have to accept the will of our fellow citizens.
I have heard numerous other arguments about AV that ought to be dealt with. Some senior politicians worry that the electorate may struggle with ranking prospective parliamentary candidates on an AV ballot sheet; there is a fear that this confusion will put voters off. I'm not altogether sure we could alienate many more voters than we already have. It seems an AV ballot paper is no more complex that voting on Pop Idol or setting the central heating. But above all, is that the amount of respect some politicians have for the electorate?
Then there is the notion that AV will break the link between a constituency and an MP. A prominent Tory suggested this to me. A Tory. The party famous for parachuting folk from Kensington and Chelsea into any half-safe Tory seat the length and breadth of the country. I would argue the opposite. You need to woo 50 per cent of the constituents in your chosen seat to secure it, therefore greater engagement is required. Local candidates will have a distinct advantage. And surely support from half your constituents is a nobler aim than the indifference or indeed disdain of 70 per cent of your electorate?
The bottom line is this. Our political system should be constructed on fairness. That surely is the single most important component of democracy. Isn't that what women threw themselves under horses for? Isn't that what we went to war to defend? Isn't that why we export that notion through our foreign policy? It's untenable that almost 70 per cent of our elected Members of Parliament are there with less than half the support of their constituents. And it's wholly unacceptable that the status quo remains. Whatever happens, there should be change.
When it comes to cricket, would you listen to David Cameron? When it comes to politics, why listen to David Gower? Or for that matter, me. Listen to the facts. But more importantly, in the words of 1980s Swedish pop duet Roxette, listen to your heart. And use your head.Reuse content