To AV or not to AV? That is the question.
The referendum on a mooted change to the voting system already looks set to go down as one of the more bizarre and unedifying chapters in British political history with both sides descending towards the gutter at breakneck speed.
Despite all the controversy, the proposed switch to the Alternative Vote (AV) system remains a minor and arcane change to voting procedures that will have a relatively modest impact on the political landscape. And yet the respective camps have been fighting like rats in a sack, engaging in what Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne, a leading figure in the Yes campaign, has described as the dirtiest political fight he has seen during 30 years of politics. It sounds like standard political hyperbole, but then you look at the insults, the misinformation, the outright falsehoods, and the comparisons with Nazis, and realise he has a point.
The proposed changes are far less significant than both camps would have you believe (the really significant change is David Cameron's disgraceful attempts to gerrymander constituency boundaries through his planned cutting of the number of MPs, but that's a whole other story). A switch to AV will not deliver a shining city on a hill as some in the Yes campaign seem happy to suggest, and nor will it undermine the foundations of our democracy as Cameron and co apparently believe.
However, a victory for the Yes vote would still represent the most significant shift in the UK's voting system since women got the vote and would result in a subtle shift in the political landscape that could have a sizable impact on a wide range of issues, not least among them green policy.
The green case for AV is pretty compelling, hence the Green Party's emergence as one of the most vocal and effective campaigners for voting reform.
The Greens have long been under-represented within British politics with poll after poll showing that while a sizable minority of voters would describe themselves as green and would happily vote Green under the right circumstances, they are put off come election time by a first past the post system that incentivises millions of people to vote tactically.
It is a fairly crude stereotype, but your average potential Green voter in anything approaching a marginal seat will often rather vote for the Lib Dems or Labour, than vote Green and risk the Conservatives sneaking a victory. The AV system allows people to vote for the party they actually support, safe in the knowledge that if the race is close their second preference votes - in the case of our crude example, for Labour or the Lib Dems - will then be counted in a second round or third round designed to ensure that the eventual winner commands the support of at least half of their constituents.
The implications of this shift are currently the subject of huge amounts of conjecture, misinformation and untruths as the referendum campaign intensifies. It remains highly unlikely the Greens would suddenly emerge as a powerful electoral force capable of winning swathes of seats at the next election. But it does seem inevitable that the change will increase the Greens' chances in a handful of seats, and, far more significantly, force the mainstream parties to campaign far harder for the second preference votes of Green supporters across the country.
It is highly possible that this small change in the voting system will shift the centre of political gravity further towards the green end of the spectrum, forcing successive governments to respond to an increasingly environmentally aware electorate by delivering ambitious green policies. That alone should be reason enough for green business executives to vote Yes come May 5.
Meanwhile, the case against AV ranges from the highly contested to the completely fatuous.
There is little solid evidence to back up the argument the new system will prove too costly. Moreover, any row over cost begs the question of whether a country is prepared to pay a relatively modest sum for a fair and effective democracy. The suggestion AV will empower the BNP and other unpleasant elements from the lunatic fringe rather falls down on the grounds BNP leader Nick Griffin supports first past the post. The argument that people are too stupid to rank candidates in order of preference insults our intelligence, while David Cameron's claim that AV is wrong because he feels it in his "gut" is not even worthy of comment.
The strongest argument against AV is that it makes the likelihood of coalition government more likely. The impact of coalition government on the low carbon economy remains the subject of debate, but there is a legitimate case for arguing that the scale and pace of the changes needed to build a low carbon economy require the kind of strong government more commonly associated with a clear electoral victor.
The previous Labour administration was hardly a gleaming model of successful green government, but there is already a sense among many within the green business community that the compromises that have inevitably resulted from coalition have delayed low carbon progress and led to a jumble of conflicting green policies. Overseas there is also some evidence in countries such as Ireland and Australia that even when the Greens get into government through coalition, the pressures they face coupled with their unwillingness to compromise on controversial environmental issues like nuclear results in little in the way of tangible progress.
As such there appears to be a counter-intuitive green case for opposing electoral changes that make coalitions more likely.
The only problem with this argument is that AV does not lead to more coalition governments. Australia has had AV in place since 1919, and has had two hung parliaments since. In contrast, the UK has had five hung parliaments since the start of the 20th century. The No camp's claims that AV inevitably results in coalition government have no meaningful evidence to back them up.
From a green perspective, AV is categorically not a silver bullet, but it does have the potential to help drive environmental issues a small way up the political agenda. For that reason, green business leaders would be advised to ignore the scare tactics deployed by the No camp and vote Yes for a change that is hardly revolutionary, but might just make the low carbon revolution that bit easier.
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