Whilst flyering on the road to Murrayfield we had one lady stop and tell us she was going to spoil her ballot paper as a protest because she felt the referendum should not be held on the same day as the Scottish General Election on 5th May.
One Scottish Nationalist blogger has described the clash of dates as a calculated insult to the people of Scotland. Far from being a calculated insult I would suggest that it is an example of the exactly the type of heedlessness of other people that the Alternative Vote will do something about.
Here’s how I think the 5th of May came to be the date of the referendum.
Let me set the scene for you.
A room in Whitehall. It’s a few days after the General Election. Nick Clegg and David Cameron are meeting to finalise the coalition agreement. Both men are tired. They haven’t slept properly in weeks. The last few days have been exhausting and mind blowing in equal measure. There is a crowd of purple clad electoral reformers chanting in the distance. The press wait for any news. The financial markets hover waiting to decide if Britain is a good risk or not. Gordon Brown is on hold but still in Number 10. Gus O’Donnell waits in the wings.
Clegg: One last thing, David, I want this referendum as soon as possible.
Cameron: Sir Gus, how long will it take to sort out?
Sir Gus: Well, you would need an Act of Parliament and the Electoral Commission will require sufficient time for the campaign. Some time in 2012?
Clegg: No. It has to be sooner than that. I can’t walk out of here and tell the purple people they are going to have to wait. I want the referendum within a year.
Cameron: Within a year. (drums finely manicured fingers on the table). Agreed. Sir Gus, what date is that?
Sir Gus: That would be the 5th of May, Prime Minister.
It would only be later that someone would point out that the date clashed with Scottish Parliament elections but by then it would be too late to change the date.
I’m in two minds about the date. One the one hand, we’re having an election anyway on the 5th May. It makes some sense to save some money and increase turn out by having both the General Election and the Referendum on the same day. On the other hand these are two important elections and it would be a good thing if the issues they raised were considered and voted on in some clear space. Then there is the Gould Report on the 2007 Scottish Elections to consider. On balance I think the decision to hold the Referendum on the same date as the Scottish General Election was a mistake. But nobody asked me in advance so I’m just going to have to make the best of a bad job.
I don’t think it was calculated. I just think it was careless. It doesn’t surprise me that an English Tory and an English Lib Dem weren’t thinking about the Scottish elections. That’s why we have a devolved Parliament to legislate for Scotland and devolved Government to make policy for and administer Scotland. One of the great strengths of the Alternative Vote is that it makes politicians think about the needs and views of voters outside their narrow partisan base. If you can be elected with between 35-40% of the vote you don’t have to think about what most people want. You can be cavalier about their needs. You can pluck a date for a referendum out of thin air and only discover afterwards that you’ve double booked the Scottish People. Jings, we were lucky it wasn’t the 2nd of January.
Suppose I’m wrong, and the date was picked deliberately to annoy Scottish voters. Scottish voters who have more experience than most of the UK with different electoral systems. Scottish voters are reported as being more in favour of electoral reform than the UK average. Scottish voters who know what it is like to be marginalised and not have our voices heard. If it was deliberate, and angered Scottish voters so much they spoiled their ballot papers in protest, who would benefit? If it is a conspiracy that works by angering Scots it is the vested interests at Westminster who benefit if you spoil your ballot paper. It certainly won’t be Scots who benefit if the referendum returns a No result.
Whether the date was picked carelessly or was a calculated decision and right or wrong though the date may be that still doesn’t change the fact that the referendum is scheduled for 5th May. The referendum only asks you one question; do you want to change the voting system from First Past the Post to the Alternative Vote? Yes or No?
It doesn’t ask you if you think the date was badly chosen. It doesn’t ask you if you think the coalition is right or wrong about forests or jobs. It doesn’t ask you about Scottish Independence. It’s a single issue referendum with a one word answer. Yes or No.
Do you want increased voter power? Do you want more marginal seats? Do you want MP’s who work harder and are more respectful of the electorate? Do you want your vote and your voice to count?
If you want your vote to count, not just in the referendum but in Westminster General Elections, don’t spoil your ballot paper. There is no analysis of spoilt ballot papers. Nobody sits and counts how many people wrote “Independence” or “Proportional Representation”. Spoil Ballot papers go into a black bin bag. If you want your vote to count, vote Yes.
If you really think that the date clash is an insult here’s what to do.
Vote Yes in May and then use the extra voter power that AV gives you to vote against candidates who were careless of our national elections.