The proposed reform to the voting system in the UK may make it a little more attractive for people to participate in the electoral process.

As I write this, I have no idea whether the United Kingdom is about to change its voting system from first past the post to AV (the alternative vote). On May 5, the issue is being put to electors in a referendum.

There are several reasons why I have decided to write about the matter before the referendum vote. The first is that traditionally in the UK we have never embraced the idea of a referendum. Indeed, the only UK-wide one was in 1975, when voters were asked to decide whether to remain in the European Economic Community (later the European Union). Voters decided to stay in.

My second reason is that the AV question has shown up many of our political leaders at their worst, particularly those on the “no” side. They have claimed that AV is bound to bring uncertainty, and that first past the post ensures a clear result. Given that our last general election, last year, produced a result with no clear majority, and led to the formation of our present coalition government, that is manifest nonsense.

Simple enough

They have also claimed that the AV system is so complicated that ordinary voters will not understand it. Yet the principle of AV is clear; on the list of candidates in each constituency, voters have the right to mark them in order of preference: 1, 2, 3 and so on. If a voter has only one preference, he or she just marks 1, and ignores the others. Anyone who is able to count, and who has opinions about different candidates, is not likely to be intellectually stretched by that. When the votes are counted, if no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the first choice votes, the second choice votes for the candidate who comes at the bottom of the list are allocated to the other candidates – and so on, until a clear result is achieved. Again, understanding that is not intellectually challenging.

My main reason for deciding to write about the matter is that the wariness of many politicians about AV derives from their fear that it will challenge the cosy certainty of the world that they inhabit.

AV would not be my preferred voting system – but it is clear to me that the current first past the post system, in a country where there is a far greater variety of political opinions than half a century ago, is not serving us well. The number of people who can be bothered to turn up and vote has been falling. Many say “there's no point in voting. It won't make any difference” – and that is very bad for democracy. There is much cynicism about politicians, some of it well deserved, and that too is not a good basis for a democratic state.

The claim that AV is too complicated for ordinary people – us peasants – to understand, is not new. At the time of the 1975 referendum on the EEC much that was written by politicians was along the lines of “this is far too complicated for you, so don't try to understand it”. This annoyed me at the time, not least because in my village my fellow “peasants” understood very well what it was about.

Worrying trend

There are of course perfectly valid arguments for and against AV, and indeed for and against the desirability of electoral reform in principle. What surely ought not to be in doubt is that something is wrong when the proportion of the electorate who can be bothered to vote in elections is falling. Democracy is not just an incontrovertible fact of life. If it is to continue to flourish, it needs people to be sufficiently concerned about it to take their political responsibilities seriously. Ask anyone in a country where democracy does not exist.

The more strongly members of our present political elite argue to keep the status quo, so that stability remains, the more convinced I become that change would be a good thing. Any coalition government, of course, has inherent weaknesses, but in many countries coalition governments are not uncommon, and they emphatically do not inevitably lead to instability. In my opinion, the dangers of voter apathy are much greater than the risks attached to a coalition. The fact that in a coalition there has to be compromise is surely a good thing – except of course for the politicians who have to make the compromises.

AV is not perfect, but it has my vote.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: bill.kirkman@gmail.com