The Green Party conference will vote on whether to support a Yes vote in the AV referendum. Nishma Doshi argued against. Here, Sunny Hundal argues that we should.

The history of progress is littered with revolutions that drastically changed people’s lives. But while those big events are undoubtedly important and hog all the history books, we frequently lose sight of the fact that most change has come via slow incremental progress throughout history.

I say this in the context of the upcoming Alternative Vote referendum in May 2011. I support a move to AV while accepting the arguments against: AV is not a proportional system and can produce even more distorted outcomes sometimes.

But let’s look at where we are and where we want to be.

We’re at the cusp of a once-in-a-lifetime referendum on the voting system. The Conservatives are resolutely against it because they want to preserve their vested interests. They hate proportionality because it would expose how fragile their political coalition is. The entire right-wing media will fight against AV for the same reason.

What we broadly want is an electoral system proportional to how people vote while maintaining the MP-constituency link.

Ignoring arguments against any vote reform at all (including the ludicrous ‘it’s not a doorstep issue’), it comes down to this: does the AV referendum represents progress or not?

The problem is that people approach this question ideologically. They see it as a “miserable little compromise” and want to hold out for more meaningful change that will not be delayed by stop-gap measures. But the question has to be seen politically, and looked at in the context of how change actually takes place.

As a parallel, the same dilemma came up during the recent healthcare debate in the US, where the left was aghast at how the bill was watered down to exclude the ‘public option’. Asking whether a flawed health-care bill was better than no bill at all, the commentator Ezra Klein wrote:

Failure does not breed success. Obama’s defeat will not mean that more ambitious reforms have “a better chance of trying again.” It will mean that less ambitious reformers have a better chance of trying next time. Conversely, success does breed success. Medicare and Medicaid began as fairly limited programs. Medicaid was pretty much limited to extremely poor children and their caregivers. Medicare didn’t cover prescription drugs, or individuals with disabilities, or home health services.

The same applies to the UK. While big programmes such as the creation of the BBC and the NHS undoubtedly appeal to the left: the broader war on equality (anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia); on worker’s rights; on environmental regulation; on road safety; on consumer rights etc – have all been won incrementally.

Losing the referendum on AV will not increase the chances of broader change to a more proportional system. It will in fact strenghten the hand of vested interests who want to maintain the out-dated FPTP system. They’ll say: see, we told you this is not an issue most people care about! The leap will be delayed by another generation at least.

On the other hand a move to AV exposes the public to more complexity in the voting system and prepares the ground for more incremental change in the future to AV+, AMS or STV.

It will strengthen the hand of reformers who can argue that the British public rejected FPTP in a public referendum and consign that system to history. It will open the floodgates to more change once the FPTP advocates have lost once and for all.

This is why I support the move to AV. It marks the start of a long war, not the end. If we lose it, the war for a more proportional system will be over before it’s even begun properly.