TIMING is everything. Just as the grumblings get louder over Stoke City’s potential ‘lose and you win’ route into the Europa League, a leaflet drops through my letterbox proclaiming the UK political voting system should be kept simple, like sport. Whuh?
The ‘No to AV’ leaflet, currently appearing on doormats all over the country, is urging the population to reject a proposed change to the system for electing MPs. Instead of approving the proposed Alternative Vote system in a referendum on May 5, the leaflet argues that we should keep the ‘first past the post’ set-up instead.
There are sound arguments for and against AV. Those in favour claim that too many votes are wasted under the ‘first past the post’ system, and that too many MPs are elected with a relatively small share of the vote. Those against claim that the current process is easy to understand and generally leads to stable government.
Both arguments are fairly simple to set out. And yet the ‘No to AV’ leaflet is an odd piece of campaign literature, full of sophistry and downright nonsense, neitehr of which are ever a sign of a confident argument. (For instance, it claims the cost of implementing the AV system will be £250million, which is untrue, and it slyly implies that all of that money would otherwise be spent on doctors, teachers and nurses, which is also untrue.)
If a class of 11-year-olds had produced a leaflet as poor as this, they’d be put in detention for a week. (Well, possibly not, but if it’s OK for others to make up rubbish in the name of political debate, then I’m jolly well going to join in.)
So how does sport fit into the No campaign? Because of its simplicity. There are winners and losers in sport. If one football team scores more goals than their opponents, then they win the match. And so, the argument goes, that’s how it should be in politics – whoever gets the most votes wins. (That’s how it would work with AV as well, albeit potentially in a more roundabout way.)
The ‘No to AV’ leaflet actually illustrates this with a picture of an athletics race, claiming that the runner in third place would end up winning. ‘The winner should be the one that comes first,’ declares the headline above the picture.
(Incidentally, despite the No campaign leaflet’s claim above, the BNP are against the introduction of AV, arguing that it would be “fundamentally unfair to smaller parties”. The BNP have stated that they would prefer a propotional representation system instead.)
The Sun has taken a similar tack in its ‘No to AV’ campaign. One article last week quoted a host of sports stars reacting to the AV system by shouting “my brain hurts” in unison.
Then the paper got David Gower, the former England cricket captain turned Sky Sports presenter, to extend the sporting metaphor a little further.
“In sport, as in elections, you have a winner and a loser,” Gower wrote. “It’s the way we separate the best from the worst. It is important that the winner is chosen simply and fairly.”
There’s just one problem with that argument. Sport isn’t actually that clear cut at all. And as an experienced cricketer, Gower should know that better than anyone.
If cricket was that straight-forward, then why do so many Test matches end in draws, even though one team has scored more runs than the other? And don’t get me started on the format of the recent Cricket World Cup.
If the winner in football is always the team that comes first, then how come three of this season’s Champions League semi-finalists qualified for the competition by finishing second in their domestic league last season?
Actually, football and cricket are two of the more straight-forward sports in this country when it comes to rewarding success. At least the team that finishes top of the league wins the title. That’s not necessarily the case in rugby league or rugby union, which have end-of-season play-offs to decide their national champions, as do basketball, speedway and ice hockey, among other sports.
So what Gower appears to be suggesting is that politics has to be less complicated than sport in order to be fair. Hard to argue with that. Or at least, it would be if the political system was consistent.
Renowned Aston Villa fan David Cameron is leading the ‘No’ campaign. Yet he was elected as Conservative leader in 2005 via a variation on the Alternative Vote system. If his party’s leadership ballot had been run on a ‘first past the post’ basis, then David Davis would have been elected instead, as Cameron finished second in the initial round of voting.
Even the Sun is not being particularly consistent. It’s all very well getting hot and bothered about ‘most votes wins’ politics now, but they were broadly supportive of George W Bush during his presidency – even though he polled fewer votes nationwide when beating Al Gore to the White House in 2000. (Gore’s consolation was a place in the Europa League first qualifying round, where he was defeated on away goals by FK Rabotnicki of Macedonia.)
The problem for the ‘Yes to AV’ campaign, ultimately, is that Nick Clegg supports it. And Clegg couldn’t be less popular if he started investing in Crawley Town, then merged them with MK Dons. With the local elections due to take place on the same day as the AV referendum, May 5 has already been designated as ‘National Kick Nick Clegg Up The Arse Day’.
And it doesn’t help the Yes campaign either that they have less money to spend, which is probably why I’ve not had a leaflet through from them.
For those reasons alone, the AV decision is unlikely to need extra-time – clumsy sporting metaphors or no clumsy sporting metaphors.