Editorial: Mud-slinging in the vote on votes

Debate over the role of charities in the referendum on introducing the alternative vote is likely to continue, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

It was probably just a matter of time before charities were drawn into the debate about the forthcoming referendum on introducing the alternative vote in place of the current first past the post system for elections to the UK parliament.

The first salvo has now been fired by the No to AV campaign, which last week challenged 23 charities in the political education alliance Democracy Matters to deny that they support the yes campaign. Such support would be incompatible with charitable status, it argued.

The challenge was made on the grounds that the Democracy Matters logo has featured on the website of the pro-AV group Take Back Parliament. Democracy Matters says this happened in the context of its support for a referendum rather than for a vote one way or the other.

The spat came just before publication by the Charity Commission of a new section on referendums in its guidance on charities and elections. This says it might in some cases be appropriate for a charity to set out the pros and cons of a yes or no vote for its beneficiaries.

But the commission draws a distinction between that and actually campaigning for a yes or no vote, which it says would be appropriate only in exceptional cases where the outcome of a referendum was likely to affect directly the delivery of a charity's objects.

Titus Alexander, convenor of Democracy Matters, says that if a charity's objects include giving citizens a voice, and it believes that a particular outcome of the AV referendum would advance those objects, it should be allowed to campaign.

Citizens already have a voice through the universal franchise, but the argument would presumably be that the nature of that voice, as expressed in the system of voting, determines its strength and effectiveness.

What seems certain is that we will be hearing a lot more about such matters as the mud-slinging intensifies before 5 May, and the commission will once again take the unenviable role of referee.

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