Leading article: The referendum campaign on voting reform has begun. Does it matter?

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Yesterday, the curtain was raised on the official campaign in support of a Yes vote in the referendum on the alternative vote on 5 May. Many will be tempted to ask: why should we care? The headlines are crowded with urgent matters of life and death. Japan is experiencing a nuclear emergency. The rebellion in Libya is reaching a crucial stage. There is turmoil across the wider Arab world. And here at home, we are about to experience the most severe spending cuts in a generation.

So why should we care about whether or not our ballot papers allow us to list candidates in order of preference at general elections? Is this not irrelevant to people's real lives, a preoccupation of political anoraks? Apathy is an understandable reaction but it is a misguided one. We should care about this referendum because it is a chance to inaugurate a new, more fully representative political era.

This newspaper's campaign for electoral reform began after the 2005 general election, when Labour won a double-digit majority with the support of just 35 per cent of those who voted. We are used to a winner-takes-all politics in Britain, but that stretched the definition of "winner" almost to destruction. Tens of thousands of you – our readers – signed our petition calling for a fairer voting system. The extent and passion of your feedback made it clear to us that the Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, was desperately wrong when he argued that there was "no appetite" among the British people for a change to our voting system.

AV is not the reform that we would have chosen. It is not a proportional system. And under certain circumstances it might mean even bigger landslides. AV would erode, but not eliminate, the problem of "safe" seats. Yet it would mean a more representative House of Commons and a much less restrictive voting system.

The democratic contract between MPs and constituents would be strengthened since politicians would only be returned to Westminster if they enjoyed the support of a majority of their constituents. And the curse of the first-past-the-post system – the argument that a vote for a smaller party is "wasted" – would be eliminated at a stroke, because the second preference votes of lower-placed candidates would be reallocated if the first count failed to produce a clear winner. The public will be able to vote for the person they want to represent them (as their first preference) without having to agonise about whether they are effectively disenfranchising themselves if they choose a candidate representing a smaller party.

The arguments of the AV opponents are generally weak and misleading. But they keep coming. The former Labour cabinet minister, John Reid, argued yesterday that AV gives the supporters of minority parties "more of a say" in elections than the supporters of mainstream parties. Yet Mr Reid has nothing to say about the gross unfairness of the present system, which often denies those who fail to back one of the larger parties any influence whatsoever on the outcome.

It is assumed that AV would boost the parliamentary representation of the Liberal Democrats. But the merit of this reform is not that it would benefit any individual political party, but rather its impact on the overall political landscape. Those arguing for business as usual fail to recognise the extent of the disaffection of voters with the status quo, which has yielded an unhealthy disconnection between the political classes and the broad mass of the public. The public reaction to the 2009 MPs' expenses scandal merely exposed a gulf that was already there. AV is an opportunity to begin to bridge it.

The public are already rebelling against the present two-party voting straitjacket. In the 1950s, 95 per cent of voters cast their ballots for Labour or the Conservatives. In 2010, just 65 per cent did so. The doors to political reform have been prised open by the 2010 election result, which delivered a hung parliament and the agreement to stage this referendum. Now is the time for the British people to fling those doors to a better politics wide open by rejecting apathy and voting Yes to AV.

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