Ed Miliband: 'This is a referendum on the voting system. Not on Nick Clegg'

The Labour leader writes exclusively for 'The Independent'

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:14

The nationwide referendum taking place on 5 May – the first for 36 years – is our chance to change politics for the better. Like most political contests, the choice is coming down to hope vs fear. The hopes that a Yes vote can bring better politics and the fears being peddled by the Conservatives who are spearheading the No campaign.

Our politics needs change: the reputation of politics is at an all-time low, turnout at general elections has been declining and many people feel disconnected and alienated from Westminster.

My own view is that the alternative vote (AV) isn't a panacea. It's not perfect. But I hope and believe it will help improve our politics. It will make politicians more accountable, as every MP will have to seek out more than 50 per cent of the vote.

By contrast, under the current system, less than one third of MPs get half of voters' support. It will make more people's votes count – encouraging more people to think there is a point in turning out. And AV is a chance to improve our political culture.

The current system of first-past-the-post entrenches a way of doing things that we must try to change. There is no motivation under this system for parties to go into elections pretending anything other than that they hate each other equally. No reason to find points of common ground; just to disagree. To secure a majority of votes under AV, candidates will need to be more honest about points of agreement. So a Yes vote is a vote for hope for a better politics; more accountable, fairer with a changed political culture.

By contrast, the Tories leading the No campaign seem increasingly to be basing their appeal on fear. They claim it will somehow help extremist parties; quite the opposite, given the need to gain more votes from a wider spectrum of opinion to win a seat. Little wonder that the BNP wants people to reject change.

The No campaign makes inflated claims about costs and it says it will lead to more coalitions, when the evidence is that every election since 1945 that has resulted in a majority government would have done so under AV.

And David Cameron says the system is too complicated, as if putting 1,2,3 on a ballot paper is going to confuse people.

We need to persuade people to look beyond party lines. Some Labour supporters will vote No for principled reasons. Others may be tempted to do so because they think it is a way to punish the Liberal Democrats – and Nick Clegg in particular – for the decision to join a Conservative-led government.

Still more point out that a Yes vote will cause long-term damage to the Tories and foment dissent in David Cameron's ranks among his right-wingers.

Let me say clearly: most people have an opportunity to demonstrate their anger with the Tories and the Liberal Democrats in the local elections in England or those for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. I hope they do so by voting Labour.

But the referendum is something else. It is not a referendum on Nick Clegg nor David Cameron. It is a referendum on AV.

This is not the ideal date for the referendum precisely because of the danger that people use a No vote to kick the Government. But we cannot always choose the moment to change our politics.

People from all parties should look beyond personality or political affiliation.

There is a real danger that this opportunity will be lost if people do not vote on the merits of this issue. There is a risk that the narrow party interests, point-scoring politics and divisive scaremongering encouraged by the present system – and perpetrated by leading Conservatives in the No campaign – will succeed in defeating attempts to move to a new one.

In the end, my sincere hope is that this referendum does not revolve around any particular individual – Nick Clegg, David Cameron or me.

It comes down to this: should we seize this opportunity to reform our politics or not? Should we choose the fear of the No campaign or the hope for a better politics of the Yes campaign? In the long-term interests of the country, let's seize the moment to change politics and vote Yes.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments