You know who I feel sorry for in this increasingly nasty Alternative Vote referendum campaign? The Pacific Islanders.
There they were, minding their own business, when they unwittingly became the punchline of a political joke 10,000 miles away in Westminster.
If you’ve been following the issue – and I accept many of you have better things to do – you’ll have heard it. A prominent member of the ‘no’ campaign gets to his feet and announces: “There are only three countries in the world that use AV for national elections: Australia, Fiji – and Papua New Guinea!”
He (or perhaps even she) then bellows with laughter, sits down, folds his or her arms, and smirks as if the matter has been conclusively settled, right then and there.
Like most of the arguments being bandied around, it’s terrible. For one thing, AV is very widely used in other types of election – indeed if our hypothetical politician is a member of the Labour party, he will have used it to appoint Ed Miliband as leader. If he’s a Tory, it was only a variation on the theme that saw David Cameron elected to replace Michael Howard. David Davis actually won the most votes in the first round of that contest.
For another, it suggests there’s something inconsequential about Papua New Guinea, and that this is somehow, mysteriously, caused by their electoral system.
The implication is if we adopt AV we may become like Papua New Guinea – living on isolated mountains and dependent on subsistence farming. That sort of thing.
It’s a nonsense, like so much of the hot air being generated over AV. And why? There are two reasons.
One is that AV is not proportional representation – it is a fairly small, incremental change from the first-past-the-post system we already use. Moreover, it’s mathematically complex, so its effects are not obvious. Most of the arguments for or against it, then, are debatable. The ‘yes’ campaign claims it will push extremist parties to the margins, because they will never garner enough support to cross the 50 per cent threshold. The ‘no’ campaign says it will encourage mainstream parties to seek second-preference votes from those with extremist tendencies. The former seems more plausible – but it’s difficult, or impossible, to prove.
Such a situation is a fertile breeding ground for bad arguments.
The second reason casts considerable light on the state of the coalition. Put simply: supporters of AV, and in particular the Liberal Democrats, are giving the issue far more importance than it actually deserves.
Plenty of us might vote yes, on the basis that AV is very slightly better, and very slightly fairer, than first-past-the-post. (Or to put it another way, the people of Papua New Guinea have a slightly better voting system than we do.) But this ‘miserable little compromise’, as Nick Clegg himself once described AV, is hardly a democratic revolution.
Why are the Lib Dems pushing so hard? Partly because it would benefit them, in terms of the number of MPs elected. But partly, I suspect, because they are using the issue as a pressure valve to vent their frustrations at the coalition itself.
David Cameron has been at pains to try to box off the referendum debate. The prime minister says he and Mr Clegg can take opposite sides – and argue vigorously against one another – without any long-term damage to their partnership in government.
Mr Clegg’s position is more nuanced. Asked directly, he agrees with Mr Cameron. Yet he stoked the flames by describing ‘no’ campaigners, and by extension the prime minister, as a ‘right-wing clique’ – a clear dog-whistle to Lib Dem voters who fear the coalition has dragged their party away from its natural support.
Other senior Lib Dems are openly tying the issues together. Chris Huhne, the energy secretary, wrote to George Osborne demanding he withdrew ‘lies’ about AV making elections more expensive.
“I explicitly warned you the manner of the AV campaign would be as important as the result in the effects on the coalition,” he said.
Labour supporters of an optimistic disposition might wonder if the Lib Dems are trying to engineer a way out of a partnership which has seen their popularity plummet.
May 5 will be painful for Mr Clegg’s party if, as seems increasingly likely, his party is wiped out in local elections and fails to secure a ‘yes’ to AV.
Yet quitting the coalition is hardly a solution. Both Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg knew making drastic cuts would make their parties unpopular until – they hope – a full recovery blooms in a couple of years’ time.
If the Lib Dems leave now, they get all of the opprobrium and none of the future credit. They look indecisive; they look weak; they look, at best, as if they were hopelessly naïve about what coalition would entail.
They look, in short, all those things they worried they looked before, and which they hoped going into government would change.
No, Mr Clegg is locked in to a situation largely of his own making – and more than likely without the comfort of at least securing a ‘yes’ to AV. If he can’t quit, he might at least need a holiday after May 5. I’ve heard Papua New Guinea is nice this time of year.