As The Journal arrives on campus today, fewer than 24 hours remain before polls open and the Scottish general election gets underway. We will not here issue any kind of partisan endorsement – you will vote in accordance with your personal principles, so for us to do so would be both irrelevant and inappropriate – but the election of a new government to the Scottish Parliament is only half of tomorrow's battle.
Tacked onto the bottom of your ballot paper, you will find posed a riddle that could fundamentally alter future elections: a referendum question on whether we should replace our current simple-majority voting system with the more complex Alternative Vote. It is a conundrum that the official Yes and No campaigns have spent months attempting to answer on your behalf, and by now it would take a miracle for you not to have been exposed to their often-garish efforts to influence your votes. Those campaigns have not been well-fought: they have become divided largely along party lines, with an uneasy Labour-Lib Dem alliance agitating for a Yes vote and the Tories fronting the No campaign. Both sides have resorted all too easily to crude populism and scare-mongering rather than engage in an open and honest debate with the public over the virtues and vices of either system.
But the real problem is that we are deeply engrossed in entirely the wrong debate. Proponents of AV will argue that the system's great benefit is that it stamps on a new government a more nuanced interpretation of the public will. But if that is really the goal, why are we not voting on the introduction of true proportional representation? Why are we instead limiting the discourse to a lesser-of-two-evils compromise?
The answer, unfortunately, is readily apparent: because the political parties that stand to benefit most from proportional representation are not those currently in positions of power and influence. The wavering hegemons of Labour and the Conservatives are sceptical of PR because it threatens their pride of place in the political landscape, and even the Liberal Democrats – who have for years spearheaded the electoral reform movement – are curiously quiet on the subject because the assumptions they once held of substantial Lib Dem gains under such a system now look far more dubious.
A failed referendum on AV – which is widely seen in the public eye as some sort of stepping stone to more substantial change – will kill the electoral reform agenda for a generation. We will continue with the current pattern of governments placed in office by just 20 or 30 per cent of the electorate. Current polling suggests that AV will probably fail to pass, but we must not allow the movement for change to be so easily stifled. Rather than sleepwalking back into the status quo, students should be leading the charge for a debate on electoral reform that explores a range of options, rather than a simple Yes or No choice on those systems that the party machines give us leave to consider.