Why I’m voting Yes to AV and why it’s crucial to vote

a ballot paperTomorrow sees a momentous occasion in British politics. It will be only the second time in the history of this country that the public will be asked to give their opinion in the form of a referendum, yet not many people seem at all excited about it.

Before I lay out my case for AV, it’s worth considering why the turnout is likely to be so low.

Particularly in my region, London, where there are no local elections to get people out to the polling stations, the turnout is predicted to be pifflingly low. We’re talking 15 per cent compared with 35 per cent in the provinces.

Despite weeks of explaining the pros and cons of both systems and some heavy-handed political mud-slinging, people just aren’t that interested. I believe this is down to a key disenfranchisement at the state of our electoral system, something that AV could fix.

Under First Past The Post, its easy to feel like your vote doesn’t count and be forced into a tactical voting compromise. Growing up in a Tory heartland, I felt there was little I could do to change things, especially with the centre left vote being split between Labour and the Lib Dems.

Simply put, under AV, you can have your say on a sliding scale, i.e. ‘I want the Lib Dems to get in, but if not them, then Labour and whatever we get, don’t let the Tories in again.’

Or, to put another way, the general collective consensus is more powerful than a concentrated group of people why think exactly the same way, as in the beer vs coffee metaphor put forward by the Yes to AV campaign:

the av system explained as beer vs coffee

The suggestion that this system is too complicated for the public to understand is one of the most self-damaging arguments that the No to AV campaign has put forward so far. For starters, it insults the intelligence of the population and moreover it conveniently skates over the fact that the AV system is already used and readily understood in many mayoral elections, such as the one that saw Boris Johnson elected in London in 2008.

The second myth that urgently needs debunking before we go to the polls is that of price. AV will not cost us £250 million. That’s just a bare-faced lie and Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg have both had the guts to say so in so many words. Electronic voting machines are not an essential or even necessary part of switching to AV and public education about the new system needn’t cost that much for the reasons outlined above.

Finally, I really don’t buy the idea that we shouldn’t switch to AV because only three other countries in the world have it. When we abolished slavery we were one of the first countries in the world to do that, so sticking with what we’ve always had and what few others are doing isn’t always a bad thing.

Whatever your political beliefs and thoughts about AV or FPTP, please go and make your voice heard at the polling station tomorrow.

It’s our first chance to directly influence a major policy decision in nearly 40 years and may be our last for another 40. Please don’t let it pass you by.

The great irony of the NUS Millbank protest

This may sound perverse, but watching the scenes of today’s tuition fees protest, with smashed windows, flaming flares and burning placards at Millbank, I wish I was there. It brings back the sheer exhiliration of the G20 protests last year and it’s great to see people getting on the streets and making sure their voice is heard.

Wish you were here?

The bottom line to it all is that the Lib Dems have betrayed students. A major campaign promise from the yellows was to scrap tuition fees, now the coalition Government is set to triple them.

The hypocrisy is blatant and we may see a generation of disillusioned students turn to Labour as a direct result. NUS president Aaron Porter is spot on to call for a recall law, which would let the electorate show the Lib Dems exactly what they think of them now.

However, many of the protesters seem to be getting caught up in the moment and are not thinking ahead. Last year at the G20 protests, the majority of the troublemakers were hooded and masked by bandanas. The number of bare faced students who have been caught on camera breaking windows today is truly surprising.

Forget the rising cost of a degree, if you come away from today with a criminal record, then that will do far more to hinder your future employment prospects.

Election 2010: How Cleggmania Turned Into Henmania

Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg and British Tennis Player Tim Henman
Clegg and Henman: Separated at Birth?

So Thursday night’s election results were quite the anti-climax for the Lib Dems, worthy of England’s most disappointing tennis player. Feverish polls which had predicted a 30% vote share proved wildly inaccurate, with the third party even winning fewer seats than in 2005. It seems that the impact of the television debates has been grossly overstated, as The Times’ chief leader writer Daniel Finkelstein predicted at the very start.

There are a few key points to conclude from this. Firstly, that voter allegiances run too deeply to be significantly affected by three televised debates, which, lest we forget, less than 20% of the country actually watched. Secondly, that for the Lib Dems to ever stand a chance of unseating Labour, we will need drastic electoral reform, probably in the form of proportional representation. Thirdly, that faced with the option of voting for an unproven party in the middle of an economic downturn, the electorate bottled it, and understandably so. No time for a novice, indeed.

However there are a few silver linings. Firstly the Lib Dems could achieve significant gains from a hung parliament. As I write this, the Yellows are believed to be considering a power sharing deal from David Cameron which could see Lib Dem MPs in the Cabinet and even limited concessions on electoral reform. Secondly the fringe parties such as the BNP, UKIP and Respect failed spectacularly. Nick Griffin polled third and was verbally tarred and feathered and chased out of town by Margaret Hodge, Nigel Farage’s plane crashed, George Galloway even wimped out of hearing the verdict of my constituency, who roundly rejected him. Thirdly the Green Party took a big step forward by taking Brighton Pavillion to make Caroline Lucas their first ever MP.

At the end of such an extraordinary election it is easy to see this as a victory for those same two parties who we’ve been stuck with for 80-odd years. But the more you inspect the results and consider the implications of a hung parliament, it becomes clear that politics in the UK just became a lot more open and far more interesting.

UK Election 2010: Sorry seems to be the easiest word to say

Gordon Brown is a glutton for punishment. This is the only explanation I can give for his flagellant display yesterday after the so-called bigotgate blunder. After spending 45 minutes of valuable campaign time at Gillian Duffy’s terraced Rochdale home to apologise for calling her a bigot behind her back, I can only conclude that he is a masochist. To make matters worse, he even cracked out that smile. Gordon Brown smiles outside Gillian Duffy's Rochdale house after bigotgate
What does he have to smile about at this point?

He (or rather his aides) made a grave error in not switching off the microphone on his lapel after he climbed into a waiting car, but this is the kind of thing that could be swept under the rug easily. Move on, pick a new topic (say, the economy, which you are meant to be debating tonight), and distract the public. Instead, Brown castigated himself over and over again, issuing six apologies in six hours and branding himself ‘a penitent sinner’. What does this achieve?

One conclusion to be drawn from this is that we, as a nation, have become over-reliant on the power of ‘sorry’, as if saying it enough could erase our mistakes and bring instant, total forgiveness and atonement. But ‘sorry’ is a word which suffers from the law of diminishing returns. The more often you say it, the less powerful it becomes. It is often the most stubborn characters who can issue the most effective apologies; all the more effective because of their rarity.

Gordon Brown, Radio two, Gillian Duffy, bigot, bigotgate, microphone
There goes the election...

Before the election campaign started, Brown was 10-1 to apologise for anything during the televised leaders debates. This is because the public views Brown as a stubborn ox, unwilling to concede an inch to Cameron in PMQs. This is at once his greatest strength and biggest weakness. However it could have got him out of jail yesterday – simply apologise once and move on. The apology would have been all the more striking in isolation.

Where now for Labour? Can they resurrect their wounded prize-fighter before tonight’s crucial final debate?
I’m sorry, but I haven’t a clue.

UK Election 2010: First Televised Leaders’ Debate brings ‘Presidential Politics’ to UK

“Presidential Politics arrive in Britain tonight” yells the cover story in The Times today. It’s hard not to get excited about the first televised leaders’ debate on ITV tonight, but this description is indicative of a general confusion amongst the electorate.

UK Election Debate Graphic
Tonight's Line-Up (graphic by timesonline.co.uk)

After the last election, I asked a close relative who she voted for. “I voted Labour,” she told me “because I like Tony Blair.” As sound as that sentiment is, it was largely pointless in a consituency where Labour came a distant third with less than 10% of the vote. The glamorisation of the leaders, their wives, their houses etc. only serves to add to this general impression that we vote for the leader who we like/trust/admire the most. But in fact, depending on your constituency, you may be unable to effectively support the party of your choice.

I am a natural Lib Dem, but in my constituency of Poplar and Limehouse they lie a distant 4th. A vote for them would be nothing but symbolic. But, to come full circle, that makes tonight’s debate even more interesting. For my vote to count, I need to decide in my mind between Labour and The Tories. Oh the joys of being a floating voter in a swing constituency…

MPs Expenses: The Apathetic Fallout

(Photo: Flickr User eddiedangerous)
(Photo: Flickr User eddiedangerous)

My feelings about the Daily Telegraph’s exposure of MPs’ expenses and the ensuing scandal are mixed to say the least. Whilst this  is undoubtedly a great public interest exclusive and a massive victory for freedom of information, it has left me feeling somewhat cold.

The Telegraph grabbed this story with both hands and ran with it, understandably. Friday’s revelation warranted nine pages of broadsheet coverage, 11 on Saturday and a further nine on Sunday, and it seems no other national could resist delving into this story. Today’s publication of the Tories’ expenses gives the lie to traditional allegations that The Telegraph is exclusively a loyal Conservative paper. With Cameron cruising to Number 10,  The Telegraph will have to get used to criticising its favourite party, even if it will not be championing Labour’s opposition as much as it has done for the Tories. Who knows, after Smeargate, the Lib Dems may even regain their status as Britain’s second political party? (Wishful thinking perhaps.)

But the main thing which surprises me from all this is the suggestion that the suitable remedy is increasing MPs’ salaries, which I find frankly preposterous. Rewarding them for abusing the system is comparable to giving wasteful investment bankers multi-million pound bonuses. Instead, I have to agree with Gordon Brown (for a change): “The system doesn’t work… it’s got to be changed.”

That’s right, changed, but not scrapped. The second home allowance, controversial though it may be, is based on sound reasoning. MPs almost invariably have and need two homes. The failing of the system has been twofold. Firstly, ministers have got greedy, pushed their luck and got away with it for years and years. Clearly this cannot and will not continue. Call it the court of public opinion if you must.

But secondly, and more importantly, there has been a failing in regulation. The House of Commons fees office has not been strict enough, and this is a combination of the Green Book guidelines being too generous and the rules not being followed closely enough.

MPs’ expenses should be restricted to extra costs incurred by coming to parliament that should not be covered by their (already handsome) income. The second home should be defined as within 10 miles of Westminster, and the first home must be more than a commutable distance away from the House (say 50 miles).  If Keith Vaz thinks 12 miles is an unacceptable length to be commuting, he should try the rush-hour train from Guildford to London Waterloo and see how he prefers that. Nonetheless, there is nothing to say the system cannot be saved, it just has to be policed much more rigorously.

What is truly concerning about this whole fiasco is that everyone seems to be tarred by the same brush, labelled as greedy and deceptive. Cameron will probably come off better for his readiness to offer an apology, with Brown hot on his heels, but overall the main impact will be growing political disenchantment. What with all the scandal going around, it seems logical that more and more of the voting public will start to see all politicians as greedy liars and simply not turn up and vote in the next general election. Regardless of who gets the chop from the Cabinet, this scandal could have much further-reaching implications for the state of democracy in this country.