When I was young, I was secretary for West Kent Charter 88. Me and the other four members used to meet in a house in Otford and discuss how to spend the £100 a wealthy Trotskyite gave us as our only donation. One evening in 1997, the chair announced that she was resigning. Why? “I only joined Charter 88 to get Thatcher out,” she said. She had thought that proportional representation would reduce the Conservative parliamentary majority. But now that Thatcher was gone and Labour was on the way in, she couldn’t see the point in PR anymore. “We’ve got what we wanted.”
Fifteen years later and I got a phone-call from Labour For AV. Will I be voting for AV, a kid from Bath asked me? “No,” I replied.
“Why not?” he said. “It’ll help get the Tories out.”
Here’s how this referendum came about. The Lib Dems agreed to join the coalition and vote through all the drastic cuts to public spending if the Tories would allow them a referendum on PR. The Tories said yes, but cleverly insisted that they only vote on the weakest option possible. The Lib Dems said yes because they used to be everybody’s party of second choice, so they thought it wasn’t a bad deal after all. Now that the referendum’s taking place, the Lib Dems and Labour are broadly pushing for passage because they think it’ll help them and the Tories are against because they think it’ll hinder them. All round, at every step of the way, the parties have done what they did out of sheer self-interest. This isn’t a referendum, it’s a political bargain.
Referenda are serious things. Ideally they should never happen – Parliament has sovereignty in Britain and we vote for MPs to make decisions such as this. If they do happen, they should be rare and about very important things. Our membership of the Common Market was a good reason to hold a public vote in 1975. This reform could have been decided by Parliament (as was granting women the vote) rather than put to the people as part of a deal to keep Nick Clegg’s party members happy.
If you need a better reason to say “non”, check out Rupert Myers’ fine, funny piece on it.