Monday, 25 April 2011


Something very strange is happening with the referendum campaign, which perhaps explains some of the nastiness and in-fighting that’s currently going on.

We have a situation where one side ought to be streets ahead, but it’s neck-and-neck. When this happens in sport, it’s very exciting, but when it comes to the once-in-a-generation (if not a lifetime) chance to change the voting system, there’s ample scope for despair.

As a sports journalist, I rather enjoy watching an inferior player or team fighting against much more gifted opposition through determination and clever tactics. It’s part of the romance of sport. But I get absolutely no satisfaction out of the way the No campaign is cynically trying to defend the indefensible interests of yesterday’s politicians.

The latest opinion polls say the No campaign is slightly ahead of the Yes campaign. The number of Don’t Knows is high enough for the result to be still very much in the balance, but the fact that it is in the balance is the shock for me. The Yes campaign ought by rights to be absolutely home and dry by now, yet it has been fighting a rearguard action all the way, and is by no means guaranteed victory.

Let’s get back to basics. Why do we vote? Answer: to have people making decisions on our behalf who reflect our general view of how we should be governed. Therefore, our representatives have to be in rough proportion to the public’s general views.

Do our representatives need to be 100% proportional? Answer: not absolutely 100%, because a secondary requirement of representation of the people is that it has to provide viable government. So, for example, you have the system in Germany which is proportional, except that any party getting less than five per cent of the overall vote has no representation, so you cut out all the tiny parties that can make governing such a mess. But it mustn’t get too out of kilter.

And our system is badly out of kilter. When Margaret Thatcher got her biggest majority (144 seats) in 1983, she did it on less than 44 per cent of the votes. When Tony Blair was elected for a third term with a majority of 66 in 2005, he got less than 36 per cent of the votes. Is that right? It’s not just the Lib Dems who are short-changed by the current system. It happens to take an average of 120,000 voters to elect a Lib Dem MP, as opposed to 35,000 for the Conservatives and 33,000 for Labour, but don’t think we’re the main ones who are disadvantaged – the whole country is!

Does the present ‘First past the post’ or the proposed ‘Alternative Vote’ provide the desired system? Answer: no. The right system for a modern democracy would be proportional, and neither is that. But experience has taught us to favour the evolutionary over the revolutionary, and we have got rather attached to our constituency-based way of electing MPs, so the AV system being proposed is a constituency-based step that is a little more proportional. It won’t make a massive difference, but it’s the right evolution.

I pride myself on being a bridge-builder, on seeing the other person’s point of view, even if I disagree with it. But I cannot find a single convincing argument for the current ‘First past the post’ system. The No lot said they would fight a positive campaign highlighting the virtues of FPTP. Positive? – my foot! All they’ve done is denigrate others, including the audacious step of accusing Nick Clegg (who appears in all the No literature – is that positive?) of breaking his promises, when what he did was compromise a Lib Dem pledge to form a coalition government. It’s breathtaking, yet perhaps not surprising when there’s nothing to defend FPTP with.

This is why you have to take your hat off – in a very perverse way – to the No campaign, for making it still a contest. This should be a 65:35 win for the Yes campaign at the very least, yet the No lobby seems to be slightly ahead. I sit here thinking ‘Surely the British people cannot fall for this’ – yet I fear they might.

The No campaign has coined a lot of sporting metaphors in recent weeks, I guess because ‘first past the post’ comes from sport. Yet most sport is more akin to AV than FPTP. An Olympic final follows heats, in which the weakest drop out, leaving the strongest in the final round. Even television programmes like The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing work on AV – if they didn’t, the winner would be chosen in the first programme with about 15-20% of the vote. And they say the British people can’t understand AV!

The best sporting analogy for me comes from last year’s football world cup final between Spain and the Netherlands. Spain had all the talent, and tried to play beautiful football, while the Dutch knew their only route to victory was in a cynical, physical approach that hacked down Spain’s gifted players. Justice just about prevailed with Spain getting a winning goal six minutes from the end, but it was excruciating to watch.

I only hope the Yes campaign can get a winning goal six minutes from the end. Anything else and you really would have to say people have a death wish when it comes to choosing their politicians.