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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Opinion: AV vote in Britain

Perhaps in my old (20) age I am becoming a little bit overly nationalistic as I've noticed that my last two strongly opinion driven pieces have been  tinged with a somewhat anti-British sentiment. I am in no way anti-British or indeed any nation in the world so if any of you feel this way I would like to open this piece with an apology.

However, the media's treatment of tomorrow's AV referendum has me somewhat baffled. For those of you not in the know about UK politics the country will go to the polls today to decide whether to keep the country's current first past the post electoral voting system or to adopt the Alternative Voting System. These will be explained after the page break.
Firstly it has to be stated that the idea of a UK-wide referendum is somewhat foreign to the British people, with the last major occurrence in 1975, debating whether it would be wise for the country to enter the European Union. This is a decision which has proved deeply controversial ever since.

Secondly, there is the issue of explaining AV to the public. The BBC, Britain's national broadcaster, has ran hilariously uninformative advertisements which simply detail the literal changes to the voting process. It just states that electors will have to number their candidates in order of preference. It does not explain what happens after this or how the election process will actual change should it be enforced. For this explanation, it directs people to its website. Indeed the media has seemed to run a campaign dealing with how terribly confusing the system would be for the public.

Nick Clegg - Lib Dem leader and Reform Supporter
Other sticking points for the no campaign has bee the issue of cost and the difficulty in the smooth running of an AV campaign as well the bizarre assumption of AV as giving people more than one vote. As an Irish person all of these arguments are somewhat stupefying.

Firstly, let me succinctly explain the AV voting system. Each voter is presented with a list of candidates who they number from one down.  The first choice votes are counted and if no representative manages to achieve 50 percent of the vote the lowest scoring candidate is eliminated and their second preference votes re-distributed until such a situation as one candidate does receive over 50 percent of the vote. Done.

You see in Ireland we are no stranger to referendums. Since the foundation of the state there have been roughly 30 national referendums on issues as broad as abortion, divorce and electoral reform. Our constitution sates that every time the Constitution is to be changed that a referendum must be held. This vote is binding. No such remit exists in Britain whereby Governments are not obliged to abide by the decisions of referendums ( although I'm sure that they will).

David Cameron- Tory Leader and anti-Reform
So because they are legislated by by law they are often carried out when it would be easier for the Governemnt not to have them, for example the Lisbon treaty referendums. This means that the Government wants the people to be as informed as possible in order to get a strong mandate at the polls ( although usually the main parties have the same positions on the referendums). Ad spots are run on TV explaining the proposed changes and comprehensive brochures are distributed to every household in the country. If you want the public informed (and I have proved it is not a difficult issue) then it is not a difficult thing to do.

Also in Ireland, we implement the Proportional Representation System in our General Elections which it is argued is more complex than the proposed AV system and may even be more costly. However, can the average Irish person explain it to you, yes. Is the average Irish person any more intelligent than the average Brit? I wouldn't imagine so. So I would say this point is deeply condescending. As for cost, well there are few things more important than a genera election, so I think a nation shouldn't be afraid of spending money on it.

This entire debate reminds me of the utter horror that accompanied the establishment of a coalition Government at the end of the last General Election in the UK. This sort of outrage was literally laughed at in this country where the idea of a majority Government would be far more shocking,

Perhaps it is because we are a small nation where small bog fires make nation news but it always surprises me how inward looking some nations in the world are. the UK and Ireland are close in both Geography and cultural links but it seems as though the UK would benefit from a look across the Irish Sea every once in a while to see that change is now always something to be feared.

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