The referendum on voting systems scheduled for 5th May 2011 is as much a referendum on First Past the Post as it is on the Alternative Vote.
I am a member of the Yes to Alternative Vote Campaign. You could describe the No Campaign as the Yes to First Past the Post campaign. It is up to them to demonstrate that the voting system we have ended up with as a historical accident is actually better than the Alternative Vote system.
First Past the Post is often described as “tried and tested” and “traditional”. One description of it that does not apply is legitimatised by the elecorate. First Past the Post has never received a popular mandate. No one has ever voted in for First Past the Post. First Past the Post does not have some god-given right to be the voting system we use to elect our representatives.
The British people have never been asked to endorse an electoral system. They are not being asked to change their mind, turn away from good old First Past the Post and chose the Alternative Vote instead. This is the first time our opinion has been sought. Both sides in the campaign should start their arguments from a blank slate.
Several attempts at changing the voting system have been made before. A Speaker’s Conference in 1917 recommended a change to the Single Transferable Vote with the Alternative Vote emerging as a compromise before the whole bill failed. In 1931 an attempt by the minorty Labour government to introduce Alternative Vote failed when the government fell. Between those two attempts were a number of private members bills in favour of either Single Transferable Vote or Alternative Vote. Voting reform is not a new issue in UK politics.
In all of this the British people have never been asked which voting system they would like. This referendum is as much about First Past the Post proving itself as it is about the Alternative Vote.
So far I’ve not heard much said in favour of First Past the Post. I’ve heard the No Campaign point out some of the issues with the Alternative Vote. I’ve heard them explain how the Alternative Vote is not as good as Proportional Representation. I’ve certainly heard them try to tar the Yes Campaign by associating us with fascists and communists. I’ve yet to hear them advance a strong coherent case for First Past the Post.