Published on February 25, 2011

The AV Referendum: How we can get the conversation back on track

By Annie Quick

Annie Quick is Researcher and Team Coordinator. She has a background in different methods of deliberation and participation and in youth democracy.

sign two directionsWhatever the result, I’m excited about our opportunity in May to vote on whether to keep our voting system of first past the post or opt for the Alternative Vote (AV). This is the first national referendum since the 1970s and a welcome opportunity to flex our muscles as voters. In the first week since the bill was passed, however, the conversation doesn’t seem to have got off to a very good start. Here’s where I think we’re going wrong, and some thoughts on how we might get the conversation back on track.

Our future democracy is too important to be decided on today’s Party politics

I am not the first to have noticed that the debate on the pros and cons of AV is in serious danger of becoming a debate between Clegg and Cameron. This tendency was not helped by kicking off the referendum with their two opposing speeches. Most worrying is that the yes and no campaigns also seem to have accepted that this will be in large part a battle about Parties and people. The emphasis on celebrity endorsement from the yes campaign is a little disappointing, and the no2av blog is already making a favourite sport of Clegg-mockery.

After the previous few national elections perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the conversation isn’t all rational deliberation of the issues at hand. But I suspect that if we’re not careful, this referendum will be even more susceptible to these influences than most elections. Many or most of us have gut feelings about where we lie on the political spectrum. These opinions may not always be grounded in deliberation and good information, but at least they’re a starting point. But unlike Party Politics, very few have grown up listening to conversations about the pros and cons of electoral reform around the dinner table. As a recent guide by Ipsos Mori states ‘The vast majority of the public neither know nor care anything about electoral systems. (It even bores the most of the election “anoraks”.)’ Which leads onto my second point.

Explaining voting systems might be boring, but it’s crucial

When Involve runs deliberative events (such as World Wide Views) which invite citizens to vote on complex issues, the first step is always to ensure there is accurate, balanced information. If we don’t get this right, the rest is meaningless. These two voting systems are complex – perhaps not in the actual mechanics of how votes are counted, but in their wider implications for our democracy and public institutions. It’s surprising therefore that many papers reporting on the referendum don’t attempt to explain what it is (see, for example here or here). Over the past few weeks, a number of useful guides and Q&As have begun to spring up, but perhaps because AV hasn’t previously been a popular first choice, there is less out there than might be expected.

The referendum needs to be made interesting, engaging and wherever possible, fun

Even those who agree that it’s an important issue seem to find the referendum dull. But in order to get engaged, the issue will need to be made interesting and accessible. This isn’t easy with a topic which is naturally rather academic and lacks the personal element of many political issues. It can, however, be done. A campaign for political reform in the run up to the election used cakes iced as pie charts to demonstrate the different results under first past the post and Proportional Representation, and took to the streets to discuss the issue with passing shoppers. This facebook app allows users to test out how AV would work on by voting on questions and following how the results were calculated.

The conversation needs to be deliberative

The first role for deliberation is to interrogate the facts. The yes campaign claims that AV will make MPs work harder, give us a bigger say on who our local MP is and tackle the job for life culture, while no2av claims it is costly, complex, unfair and a politicians’ fix, leading to backroom deals and broken promises. We need to demand that they explain these claims in more detail, and examine the evidence drawing on experts in the field and international case studies.

But all the facts in the world still won’t tell us how to vote on May 5th. There are undoubtedly good arguments for both sides, and deciding which to go for will depend on examining our personal values, what kind of democracy we want to live in and interrogating the criteria on which we weigh up the pros and cons. This is the second role for deliberation, and the most urgent reason why we need such a dramatic shift to a better quality of conversation.

Involve does not have a view on the content of the referendum, but we do have strong views on the process. If this referendum is to have any meaning it needs to be open, honest and deliberative. In order to do this, and in the absence of anyformal attempt to provide the space for such deliberation, we’ll have to take it upon ourselves to find, share, discuss and interrogate the options we have on May 5th.

Photo by andrewatla

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