If you're anything like me, you've probably been spending anything up to 0.2% of your spare time recently wondering how (or if) you're going to cast your vote in the AV referendum in a month's time. Because on the face of it, it looks like a lose-lose choice.
"If only there was some way we could improve this country's useless, broken mockery of democracy AND kick Nick Clegg's face off at the same time", is, if you're like me, what you've probably been thinking. But maybe there is.
AV, almost everyone agrees, is a waste of time. NONE of the parties in Parliament actually favours it as the best way to conduct an election, which makes it all the more astonishing that it's somehow become the subject of the first single-issue vote put to the British people in almost 40 years, while referenda that the public actually want are denied.
(It's very hard to escape the cynical conclusion that the only reason we're being allowed a voice now is precisely because AV is something nobody really cares about and which won't make any difference to anything.)
Before last year's General Election the Lib Dem leader quite rightly dismissed AV as a "miserable little compromise", so it should come as no surprise that he now wants us all to vote for it. The only purpose the reform will serve is to increase (in normal circumstances) the number of Lib Dem MPs, while having no meaningful impact on the fundamentally unrepresentative Parliaments we end up with. We will still end up, 99 times out of 100, with one party wielding absolute majority power founded on the support of barely a third of voters.
(There is, of course, a certain amount of irony in the fact that the price the Lib Dems have paid to secure this chance of improving their own petty standing is a collapse of support so catastrophic that even if they get AV they'll probably end up losing half their seats at the next election because everyone hates them so much.)
So it's obvious, right? Vote "No", give Clegg a bloody nose, and entertain the very slight possibility that it could bring down the coalition government. (Because Clegg would risk being deposed as Lib Dem leader by a party furious at the squandering of their support for nothing, and without him they might well withdraw from the coalition, leaving the Tories trying to implement brutal, massively unpopular cuts without a majority.)
But wait. A "No" vote will inescapably be interpreted and reported as support for the status quo, and under First Past The Post this country will be doomed to right-wing governments (be they blue or red in shade) forever, with all that that implies for the destruction of civil liberties, the continued growth of the gap between rich and poor, and all the other evils we've seen in the last 32 years. With FPTP we will inexorably continue Britain's sleepwalking journey, begun in 1997, towards a de facto one-party state.
If the electorate rejects AV, the Tories and Labour (whose interests FPTP serves so powerfully) will deem FPTP to be the settled democratic will of the British people, and any chance of proper electoral reform will be lost for a generation or more. But if the "Yes" camp wins, we'll be told "You wanted change, here it is, now shut up" and any chance of proper electoral reform will be lost for etc etc.
So it looks like we're caught in a Catch 22, where neither a "Yes" vote nor a "No" one will actually do anything to restore our illusory democracy to a reality. (And a low turnout will merely send the message that nobody's very bothered about it one way or the other.) But there IS one outcome that will be impossible for the parties to ignore.
If we all go out on May 5 and spoil our ballot papers, there is no way for politicians of any stripe to spin the result. The voters will have unequivocally said "We are neither happy with the status quo or the alternative being offered, and we care sufficiently to have come out to the polling station to tell you so. Go away and come back with something better".
Ballot-spoiling doesn't have much of a track record in Britain, partly because in a multi-option General Election it has very little chance of making a clear statement. Whatever your views, from Green to BNP, there will probably be someone standing who represents your views reasonably closely, even if they have absolutely no hope of winning a seat. Any spoiled papers can therefore be attributed to any number of possible explanations, from similarly-named candidates to voter stupidity.
But the AV referendum is a very different kettle of fish. It's an unequivocal single-issue vote, and there is no conceivable interpretation of mass ballot spoiling other than the one described above. In such an event, in an issue that by the mere fact of taking place had been deemed important enough to merit the country's first referendum in four decades, it would simply be impossible to do nothing without shattering the last pretence of democracy.
Of course, you might feel that in the light of the Lib Dems' epic treachery there's no point even in winning proper proportional representation any more. But that's a short-sighted view amounting to no more than cutting your nose off to spite your face. The Lib Dems' actions have at their core been pragmatic, and PR would bring us electoral scenarios where they (or some new third party or parties) had a genuine choice of who to back, and where Labour could once more afford to position themselves as something other than Tories Lite and still have a hope of winning, with all the knock-on effects that would generate in terms of voters being offered a genuine choice.
I'm amazed there hasn't been an organised 38 Degrees-style campaign based around this idea. It's simple, it's obvious, and it would actually work. Ironically, in trying to neutralise the power of the electorate, the government has thoughtlessly handed it the first opportunity to force a genuine shift in the political landscape since 1979.
One tiny blog by an old videogames hack with a few thousand readers isn't going to make it happen. But we've got a month. If we start making some noise, who knows who might be listening? For democracy's sake, vote XX.