April 8, 2011 10:07 pm

If only AV was like TV

The May referendum makes the politically interested realise how detached they are from the majority, who don’t even know there’s a poll

For the first time ever, I’m feeling uncomfortably adrift from the wider public. Don’t misunderstand me, I’ve long felt adrift from the wider public; it’s just never been uncomfortable before.

It’s the alternative vote that’s done it. There’s no one I can talk to; I can’t find any normal person who cares. It’s hard to sustain a Socratic approach to politics if the general conversation runs: “So what do you think about the alternative vote?” “Couldn’t give a toss, mate”.

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Robert Shrimsley

I’ve thought of sneaking it into normal people’s conversations with little questions like “I wonder which way Kate Middleton’s voting in the referendum” but I’ve a hunch it would just make me look even more nerdy.

Next month’s referendum is one of those events that makes the politically interested realise how detached we are from the 90 per cent plus that don’t even know there’s a poll. Political anoraks are fuming wildly on Twitter about the profound change to our electoral system while the rest of the country is arguing over whether Prince William should wear a wedding ring. Disraeli once talked of two nations: the rich and the poor. Today it is more like the politically engaged and the celebrity obsessed. Even perfectly serious people don’t seem to care much.

I’ve tried to raise the new voting system with the kids but they just looked puzzled and wondered why there wasn’t an app to sort it out.

Attempts by the campaigns to broaden their appeal have gone wrong. The Yes team unveiled some celebrity backers but then removed the picture of Benjamin Zephaniah from a leaflet sent out to the Home Counties. It is probably just sensible demographic targeting. Presumably this was the leaflet sent to all the viewers of Midsomer Murders who aren’t used to seeing black faces and still think John Betjeman is poet laureate.

“Darling, a Rastafarian is at the door. Wants to change our voting system. Says he’s a poet.”

“Really, Henry? Does he know Pam Ayres?”

The dismal quality of debate – especially the No campaign’s lurid scare stories – hardly helps. Perhaps the problem is that neither side’s heart is really in it. “Support the alternative vote; it’s a bit better than the current system” may not be the optimal way to energise the electorate. Likewise, “AV: it’s a tad more complex that what we have now,” lacks the requisite scare factor.

With few other clues, I turned to the advocates. It has long seemed an infallible navigational principle to find out what Baroness Warsi thinks and take the opposite view. So the news that the Tory chairman was voting No, along with John Prescott, the British National Party and almost every machine politician drawing breath, should have left me with little to think about.

But then again, do I want to be on the same team as Ed Miliband, Polly Toynbee, Caroline Lucas and glinty-eyed others who see this as a way to “rebuild the progressive consensus”?

There must be plenty of likeable moderate people on either side but they never seem to come to the fore. One imagines the strategy meetings: “OK, for this event we’ve got a charity worker, a doctor and the ghost of Mother Teresa.”

“What? Can’t we find some loud-mouthed politician that everyone hates?”

Maybe this does call for real celebrity power. None of your Helena Bonham Carter-types but the vacuous ones you find on ITV2. Ordinarily, I’d disdain such a shallow approach but it has become clear that settling the issue requires the wisdom of Solomon ... Stacey Solomon. Voters need the reassurance that only Peter Andre or the Pussycat Dolls can offer and frankly, the risk of politics being subsumed by disingenuous, shallow soundbites seems less grave than it once did. It also offers a way to reunite the two nations. I can see the Hello! magazine spread now: “Liz Hurley shows us round her stylish new electoral system.”

Maybe the alternative vote could be given a dry-run on The X Factor to see how the country takes to it. Then again, voters might not want to take chances with anything so important to them. Better to start with Westminster elections and work up.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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