Jon Cruddas: The question is, do we trust the people?

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The Independent Online

Democracy in Britain has always grown in the face of opposition from those who say the people are not ready, that change is too dangerous.

The fight for the Alternative Vote may seem in a different league from earlier struggles, but it truly is in the tradition of the Levellers and the Chartists and the Suffragettes. For one simple reason: whatever its shortcomings, in the end it gives more power to the people. That alone makes it worth all our votes on 5 May.

Of course AV is not perfect – no electoral system is. But the question its opponents have to answer – and which they have tried hard to avoid – is whether on balance it is fairer than the current system. That system has a growing democratic deficit: two-thirds of MPs are returned even when the majority of voters in their constituency wanted someone else, voters who are effectively left voiceless and unrepresented. Governments are returned to power with a smaller and smaller minority of popular support, gaining 100 per cent of the power on the back of as little as 35 per cent of the vote – less than 22 per cent of the electorate. The No camp has to explain how else it would address this – or if it thinks that status quo is acceptable.

In these terms AV is a real improvement, even if it is an imperfect one. It would mean MPs would normally go to Westminster with a clear mandate, the support of the majority of the voters. MPs still have a direct link to their voters and their constituency; they have to answer for their record and be elected on their merits. But an individual MP could no longer go to Westminster on the votes of a minority when the majority doesn't want them. When you boil it down to that, the change stops looking like a frightening revolution and starts looking like democratic common sense – a step, even if a small one, towards the greater democracy which should be our birthright.

The anti-AV camp has two points in response to this argument. The first is that AV would lead inevitably to an endless series of hung parliaments and unaccountable coalition governments. It is a concern that is worth consideration – except those who make it appear to have missed the fact that the current Coalition, like previous ones in British history, was the product of the old first-past-the-post system. AV would not have produced a hung parliament in any other recent election. Under AV, Australia has just elected its first hung parliament in 38 elections; meanwhile, Canada has virtually permanent hung parliaments under FPTP, and permanent coalition government. Coalitions may get more likely whatever we do, as fewer voters support the two main parties – but if anything, the fear of coalitions is an argument for, not against, AV.

The second argument is that second and third preferences are somehow "extra votes", and the MPs elected through them "second best". This is a cynical, deliberate misunderstanding which the No campaign must understand is untrue. AV is effectively exactly the same as having an election of several rounds in which you eliminate the lowest-placed candidate in each round, and vote again until someone gets 50 per cent – but you save yourself a lot of bother by simply getting people to list their candidates in order of preference on a single ballot paper so you can do it all in the count. Everyone still has one vote in each round. As the metaphor goes, when you go into a fish and chip shop and ask for cod, but then have to choose between haddock and plaice because they've run out, in the end you've still only had one meal – and one choice.

It's especially rich for David Cameron to make the "second best" argument. He was elected as Tory leader thanks to AV: if he really thinks FPTP is fairer and more legitimate, he should hand over now to David Davis, who beat him by a clear eight votes in the first round of the 2005 Tory leadership election. Nothing highlights more the self-serving and hypocritical nature of the Tory arguments against AV than the fact that they think it is good enough for their party, but too good for the rest of us.

The rest of their arguments tend to be equally absurd, and equally misleading. AV will require expensive electronic voting machines – except it doesn't in Australia, and there is zero evidence it would here. It will add hundreds of millions to the cost of the election – except the Conservative Party "research" behind that accusation is based on a simplistic extrapolation from the cost of elections in Australia, a country 31 times bigger than the UK. In reality, there is no evidence AV will be significantly more expensive.

They claim AV would help the BNP, which is oddly enough not the analysis of BNP members themselves – they are campaigning hard for a No vote, along with the Communists. They know very well they will find it impossible to get the endorsement of 50 per cent of voters necessary under AV – but might scrape a seat on 30 per cent or less under FPTP.

My favourite one though is that AV is too complicated. In effect, the No camp is arguing that we can't move to a different system, even if it were better, because British voters are too thick to number their candidates 1-2-3. That is deeply condescending. AV is widely used across the world and across the UK – it's a system that is familiar to anyone who has elected a union leader or voted in a mayoral election, or for a contestant on The X Factor.

In the end, the real question is whether we trust the British people, whether we believe that giving them more power is a good thing. If we do, we all should be getting everyone we know out to vote Yes on 5 May. Because this is not just a one-off election; it is a chance to change the system for ever. If we miss it, it may not come again for a generation.

Jon Cruddas is the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham