Royal Weddings apart, there is still a lot to be said for this country. May 5 is the date of the referendum on electoral reform in UK. At national level the debate on the Alternative Vote system (AV) has been grubby with personal mud-slinging. In many countries, where I work, debates on constitutional reform trigger personal threats to the safety of the protagonists and even murders. However last week’s AV debate in the Baptist Hall in Battle restored my faith that true civilised democratic debate is still alive and well.
In 1066 the Battle of Hastings was the decisive victory in the Norman Conquest of England. The actual battle took place 6 miles north of Hastings where the small East Sussex town of Battle stands today. In my role as Vice President of the Electoral Reform Society I saw a more civilised battle take place there last week. Speakers on both sides were informative, gave insights into history with wit, humour and courtesy.
Opening Speaker Richard Moore stalwart of Liberal International and Clive Bishop led for the ‘YES’ vote campaign. Clive Bishop, a management consultant, was born and brought up in Battle. The AV campaign has turned him into a citizen activist He said “When I went to join my local ‘YES’ group I found there wasn’t one. I set up the 1066 ‘Yes to Fairer Votes’ campaign in the Hastings, Bexhill, Battle ad Rye area”. Opposing Speakers to AV were Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle Greg Barker and John Barnes, a local County Councillor, but also a member of the Government Department at the London School of Economics from 1964 – 2004. Barnes was such a convincing speaker against AV that my Partner Tim would have changed his vote if he hadn’t already sent off his postal ballot!
Hugh Arbuthnott CMG a former British Ambassador to Portugal, Romania and Denmark chaired the debate. There was plenty of passionate audience participation. A man with a white beard seated behind me, a decorated war veteran from World War 2 was a fiery rebel against the status quo. An 18 year old school boy said they learned nothing about political issues at school these days then asked a really hot question (can’t remember what it was). The turnout for a small town on a Summer evening was a surprise – over 70 people – more than the hall could easily accommodate some had to be sent to the overflow gallery upstairs. In a straw poll at the end of the evening around two thirds of the audience voted ‘YES’ to AV.
I voted ‘YES’ to AV because I view the strategy for UK becoming a democratic state with a Proportional voting system as similar to the campaign for women’s suffrage. The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave only women of property over the age of 30 the right to vote – not all women, but it was a major start. Ten years later The Representation of the People’s Act gave women the vote on equal terms as men (over the age of 21). ). I am voting ‘Yes’ to AV because I view it as a step toward Proportional Representation. I look forward to the next Representation of the People’s Act giving British voters an authentic form of Proportional Representation.