Leading article: Banish apathy and vote to change politics for the better

Optimism is the appropriate mentality. We will see bottom-up politics in action

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Something troubling has taken place. In the final days before Britain's first national referendum in more than three decades, discussion of the reform upon which we shall be asked to vote has been drowned out by an unedifying and deeply offputting sound. Rather than hosting a debate about electoral reform, Westminster is talking almost exclusively about the politics of electoral reform.

Yesterday's big news was that Chris Huhne had angrily confronted David Cameron and George Osborne in a cabinet meeting over the tone of campaign leaflets issued by the No campaign. This has prompted a frenzy of speculation that the Energy Secretary is positioning himself to challenge his party leader, Nick Clegg, in the event that the referendum produces a negative result.

This follows reports that Mr Cameron has thrown himself into the No campaign with vigour because it has dawned on the Prime Minister that he will come under threat from the right wing of his own party should the electorate vote Yes to change. Some pundits are beginning to ask whether the Coalition will be able to survive the transfusion of bad blood that will result from the referendum result, regardless of which way it goes.

Labour has become involved in the recriminations too. The former Labour leader Neil Kinnock has lambasted his old colleagues, Margaret Beckett and John Reid, for throwing their support behind the No campaign.

This reduction of the AV debate to a political soap opera, a Westminster bust-up, suits the opponents of electoral reform very nicely. They are happy to see this referendum debate disintegrate into a closed discussion of who is up, who is down, who is "on manoeuvres". This suits them far more than an open public discussion of the actual merits and demerits of the Alternative Vote. Opponents of reform understand that the public are likely to see a bunch of squabbling, self-interested politicians and wonder why they should bother voting at all tomorrow.

Even when our politicians have managed to tear their attention away from each other and have addressed the public, their arguments have been hopelessly mired in crude partisanship. The Tories have argued that AV is dangerous because it will hand the Liberal Democrats the balance of power in future elections. But Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been almost as bad, implying that keeping the first-past-the-post system will lead to endless Tory rule.

Rather than reaching out and making their case to the broad mass of the public, they have targeted a relatively narrow group of partisan supporters. They have preached to the choir. This has all served to reinforce the message that the AV campaign is a matter of interest only to politicians and political anoraks. It has been a grand turn-off. The air has been sucked out of what ought to have been an invigorating moment in the history of a democracy.

But though the hour is late, the day is not yet over. The public still have an opportunity to screen out the unhelpful political noise and focus on the issue at hand: should Britain change its voting system to AV?

The central case for AV is not, contrary to what some politicians seem to think, that it would benefit one party or another, but that it would place greater power in the hands of ordinary voters. The first-past-the-post system herds us into two, or at most three, crude camps at each election. Every four or five years we are told that, unless we support a candidate with a clear chance of winning in our constituency, we are effectively "wasting" our vote. It is a system that takes free choice out of the hands of voters, to the benefit of politicians in the large, established, political parties. AV would help to change the political terms of trade. Under AV, voters will be able to list candidates in order of preference. Our days of being instructed to put a cross in the box of just one individual will be over. We will no longer be forced to second-guess how our fellow constituents will vote out of some desperate fear of casting a ballot in vain. We will be able to vote with our hearts. It is ironic that politicians such as Mr Cameron, who incessantly preach the virtues of putting greater choice in the hands of the public, should resist it so strenuously when it comes to voting.

AV will also ensure that when the count takes place, the candidate elected will generally have the support of at least 50 per cent of the electorate. At the moment, thanks to first-past-the-post, that is only true of a third of our MPs. That might not revolutionise politics, but it will strengthen the link between the public and our elected representatives.

Recent opinion polls suggest that the No campaign has an advantage going into tomorrow's poll. But those inclined to support electoral reform must resist defeatism. Even if the day is not won for change tomorrow, the margin of defeat could be crucial in determining the likelihood of this question returning to the British public at some stage in the future. A low turnout and a low Yes vote will give the enemies of reform an excuse to say that the issue should be banished from political life for another generation. A narrow defeat could see it return relatively soon, especially if, as is likely, the British public refuse to return to the embrace of the two largest parties at the next general election and persist in casting their votes for smaller parties in large numbers.

So people should not take the message from the polls that it is not worth bothering to vote. The message should be the very opposite. Optimism is the appropriate mentality. Tomorrow we, the British public, have an opportunity to influence the functioning of our democracy. This is bottom-up politics in action. Tomorrow we should banish apathy, forget the tedious squabbling of politicians, and instead focus on the simple question of whether we want to change our politics for the better. We hope that people will turn out to vote. And we urge them to vote Yes.

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