The smaller the stake in any political battle, the more vicious it tends to be.
It may not be clear where this proverb originated – some people attribute it, or a version of it, to former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – but both sides in the AV debate seem intent on proving it true.
Their opponents aren’t just wrong, they are “liars”, or possibly “whingers”. Far from being an opportunity to improve Britain’s voting system, supporters of AV portray it as a chance to undermine the coalition and give Nick Clegg or David Cameron, or both, a bloody nose.
Meanwhile, the anti-AV crowd conjure up images of babies denied incubators, or soldiers sent into battle without the right kit, all as a result of AV sucking the Treasury’s coffers dry.
Could all the name-calling and over-the-top rhetoric have something to do with the fact that the change being proposed is a relatively minor one?
Under the Alternative Vote system, each constituency will still return a single MP and leave a large number of voters – the ones who wanted somebody else – disappointed.
Some people may be able to comfort themselves with the knowledge that their second or third or fourth choice got in, but plenty of Tory, Labour or Lib Dem voters don’t support any of their rivals.
Even if they can be persuaded to cast a second preference for the rival party they hate the least, they’ll still have to face the fact that the party they actually supported has lost.
AV also gives you the chance to vote for a smaller party, if you choose.
But only candidates who get a good number of first preference votes will be in with a shout, and that means smaller parties will find it as hard to win as they do now. And if anyone gets more than 50 per cent of first preferences then second preferences won’t even be looked at.
None of this means that AV is bad, or that first-past-the-post is good. It just means that the two systems aren’t very different.
Perhaps its understandable that some of the campaigners calling for a “yes” vote in the referendum admit that they really want a more radical reform, such as the introduction of proportional representation.
This would ensure that every vote really did count and that smaller parties were represented fairly in the Commons.
It would also have drawbacks, but that’s a debate for another day – we’re sorry to say.
How much better it would have been to put proportional representation on the table today, so that we could have an honest debate about its merits.
One of the strongest arguments for reform of our political system is that we want more people to be engaged with politics, to hold MPs to account and to vote. But making the electoral system more complicated, as AV does, is unlikely to achieve this.
Perhaps the time has come to consider a different reform and one which, like AV, has tried and tested in Australia.
Why should citizens of this country not be expected to perform a simple civic duty every four or five years and make the trip to the polling station?
In other words, if we want to increase participation in elections and force politicians to take every constituent seriously, shouldn’t we at least consider the option of making voting compulsory?