UKCIA is a single issue cannabis law reform site, so why is it carrying an advert for the “Vote yes to fairer votes” campaign?

This is a first. In the past for as long as I’ve run UKCIA the site has been very clear that it has only one agenda which is cannabis law reform. This has meant that although the blog has considered wider matters  from time to time, the main site has kept well away from other  issues. Over the years there have been a lot of pressures on UKCIA to include support for things such as the campaign against the criminalisation of magic mushrooms for example, or in support of ecstasy pill testing. Perhaps more controversially the site kept its distance from tobacco use, once so closely associated with the cannabis culture.

What’s so special about the fairer votes referendum that merits breaking this long held principle?

The first and most obvious thing of course it it’s a referendum, we all have a chance to influence what happens – we have the chance to change the way those who rule over us are elected. Actually this is only the second time we as a population have been asked our views on an issue (the other was the Common Market vote in 1975), that in itself makes it special. Make no mistake, this is a very important thing we are being asked to vote on and the lack of serious coverage in the media is frankly disgusting given what the move to Alternative Vote (AV) would mean for the workings of democracy in our country.

At the moment we use a system called “First past the post” (FPTP) to elect the people who rule over us. We get to put an “X” on the ballot paper once every five years or so and the candidate who gets the most “Xs” is allowed to help make the laws with shape our society. What this means in practice is very often the person elected does not have the support of the majority of those who voted.

Take what happened last time in my home constituency of Norwich South. From the BBC website the votes cast were

Simon Wright Liberal Democrat 13,960 29.4%
Charles Clarke Labour 13,650 28.7%
Antony Little Conservative 10,902 22.9%
Adrian Ramsay Green 7,095 14.9%
Steve Emmens UK Independence Party 1,145 2.4%
Leonard Heather British National Party 697 1.5%
Gabriel Polley Workers Revolutionary Party 102 0.2%
Majority 310

So Simon Wright was elected MP for Norwich South with just 29% of the vote, that’s not much over a quarter and less than a third. A full 71% of the people who voted in Norwich South did not express any support for having Simon Wright as their MP. Now I’ve met Simon a couple of times and he’s a decent enough guy – as far as I’m concerned a vast improvement over the previous MP, Charles Clarke who was last elected here in 2005 with a massive 37% support from the voters. Charles Clarke of course became Home Secretary and was no friend of cannabis law reform. Simon Wright was not democratically elected, neither was Charles Clarke before him because  most of those who voted wanted someone else.

Now there are many arguments against the idea of democracy, indeed against the whole idea of governments in general, but if we are to live in a democratic society then at the very least our MP’s should be able to claim at least 50% support from their constituents. What we have with FPTP is an insult, it produces a Parliament that we didn’t vote for and in far too many cases simply isn’t representative of the wishes of any sort of majority of the population.

Perhaps the worst aspect of FPTP though is it makes people vote against what they don’t want instead of for what they do, the so-called “tactical” voting. If voting in elections means anything it should mean voting for what you want; AV would allow you to do that. Under AV you can vote first with your heart, then with your head, you can vote for what you would like to see and then – if you wanted – to vote for what you would be happy to tolerate, and perhaps even for what you would be willing to put up with.

Is AV the best system for picking MPs? Many would argue that what we need is a form of proportional representation (PR) – AV is not PR and really only offers an improvement over what we have, but it is an improvement.

So please do go along to the polling station on May 5th and vote “YES” to fairer votes, if this one fails we will be stuck with the FPTP system for many, many years – we may indeed never get another chance to change things.