Leading article: Make this the last time you vote with an X

Click to follow
The Independent Online

How often have politicians padded out speeches with phrases like these? "People should have more control over their lives"; "People rightly demand greater choice"; "Open up politics to give people more of a say"; or even, "Power to the people". On Thursday, we the people really do get our chance to have a say, and to take more power to ourselves.

One last time, we today rehearse the arguments for the alternative vote, by which voters elect MPs by numbering candidates in order of preference instead of using a single X. The Independent on Sunday believes that it allows us to vote for what we really believe in, without having to calculate the tactical position and risk wasting our vote. It ensures that an MP cannot be elected against the wishes of a constituency, because the winner has to represent a majority of votes that express a preference. Under the present system, as Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, points out today, two-thirds of MPs are elected on a minority of the vote.

In our view, the primary argument for reform is that it gives more power, choice and freedom of democratic expression to the voter. The benefits from the likely consequences of the change are secondary, although many of them are benign. It would reduce the number of safe seats, for example; it would probably provide greater representation for the Liberal Democrats than they would other-wise secure; and it would make it even harder for extreme parties, such as the BNP, to be elected.

There is also, as Mr Cable reminds us, a "big picture". That picture is of what he calls the "grey Conservative-dominated century". We do not need to enter the great historical debate about whether that Tory century was built on the misnamed first-past-the-post system (it ought to be called the "nearest to the post, so that'll do" system, as another Liberal Democrat suggested). Who knows how people would have voted under a different system? All we need to know is that the Conservative Party and its rich supporters are pouring substantial funds into the No campaign in a desperate attempt to prevent change.

We saw something of the bigger picture last week. The satirist Armando Iannucci reported fancifully on Friday: "Huge crowds already gathering in London for next Thursday's referendum...". But it may not be fanciful to suggest that there were two events taking place last week. One was a joyful, pluralist, even a touch ironic, celebration of modern Britishness; the other was a reassertion by the Establishment, with a clever curtsy to modernisation, of its supremacy. As John Rentoul suggests today, the mean-spirited refusal of the Royal Family to invite Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and the partisan failure of the Prime Minister to advise against it, suggested that, behind the facade of national unity, a Home Counties Tory elite is settling scores.

Despite his apparent enthusiasm for working in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, David Cameron sometimes shows signs of an underlying confidence that the pendulum has swung in the Conservatives' favour. He needs to guard against a Tory tribalism that seems to lurk just beneath his modernising surface.

It would be exaggerating to suggest that preferential voting would ensure an open, inclusive and co-operative political culture, and supporters of a Yes vote prefer not to rely on exaggeration and misinformation to woo a frankly apathetic electorate. But there can be no doubt, as Mr Cable suggests, that the conservative (or Conservative?) Establishment sees it that way. We believe that there is an association between the alternative vote and an attitude of mind that trusts and respects the voter.

The other clue as to the interests of the No campaign lies in the feebleness of the arguments against the alternative vote. It is "too complicated", they say, as if counting to six or seven, or even ordering six preferences, were beyond the capacity of the average voter. It is an alien system, they say, as if Australia were on Planet Gallifrey. It would give more than one vote to the supporters of minority parties, they say, as if people were unfamiliar with the idea of an eliminating ballot in which each voter is equal in each round.

We, the people, should not stand for these insults to our intelligence. Vote Yes for a modest improvement to our democracy on Thursday, that will give us more control, more choice, more of a say. And make it the last time that you vote with an X.