So, it's May 5th for the referendum on AV. This is the date many of us were hoping for. It's early on in the life of the coalition when there's still momentum behind political reform and before the pain of spending cuts kicks in and it's during the local elections and Scottish and Welsh elections so turnout will be higher.
The Labour candidates have all said they support AV - with Andy Burnham the most lukewarm - and David Miliband has now said he would throw the campaigning weight of the party behind a "Yes" vote.The key now will be what concrete commitments each of them can give to the "Yes" campaign - some may be tempted to pay lip service to supporting it whilst doing nothing active in the hope it will fail and bring down the coalition. The purple people will be pushing them to set their cards on the table so we know where they stand.
A rumour is going round that Cameron will not himself be campaigning against AV for the reason that he doesn't want to be outflanked as a reformer and alienate Nick Clegg. Tory activists and MPs, though, are already organising the "No" campaign and have recruited the support of Lynton Crosby, the Australian campaigning "expert" who worked on Boris's campaign. Will the likes of Tom Harris, and the large Scottish cohort of Labour MPs who oppose reform, be joining them? We await to find out.
I agree with all those saying what a disgrace it is that our choice is being restricted in this way when there are far better systems on offer. But ultimately I think reformers, of whatever hue, need to get behind the change. Although AV isn't proportional and therefore isn't the preferred system of most reformers it is a clear improvement on first past the post as it offers more choice and avoids the need for tactical voting where you're forced to vote to keep someone out rather than vote for the party of your choice. It's also a clear step towards PR as any "No" vote will kill electoral reform for generations. I'm pleased to see that the Greens look like they will back the change with prominent party members like Rupert Read championing a "Yes" vote.
Will the SNP and Plaid Cymru do the same? This is significant given that the referendum is being held at the same time as the devolved elections. The more parties come on board the more the Tory right looks isolated as they campaign for the status quo.
It'll be interesting to know what arguments are deployed against AV as it's hard to think of any good arguments against preferential voting, as Stephen Tall points out. Indeed, the main argument against AV usually come from reformers who argue it doesn't go far enough. When it was last debated in parliament I recall Dominic Grieve resorting to the argument that it is not proportional even though he and his party are opposed to proportionality as well!
But in all likelihood the argument will not be won or lost on the technicalities. My instinct is that once you get into too much detail about the merits of the different systems you have already lost. People will tend to vote against things they don’t understand and the "No" campaign will be trying to make AV out to be as complicated and confusing as possible. The "Yes" campaign will instead have to draw on deep feelings of anti-politics and the desire for change that are still very much current (from Iraq, expenses etc) and be part of a much broader narrative of “changing our politics”. It will need to take the insurgent, anti-establishment ground before the "No" campaign does if wants to stand any chance as the Tory right will attempt to frame this as a politicians fix compared to the blunt tried and tested system of first past the post.
This would be audacity of the highest order coming from such entrenched defenders of the status quo and we should not let them get away with it.
I'm excited now that we have a date.
Read more about the AV referendum in OurKingdom's Referendum Plus section.