Tuesday, 26 April 2011

AV or not AV? That's not the question.

I'm a democratic, freedom-loving lefty and I know many others who share my values. It is therefore very perplexing that some of my dearest friends are currently likely to vote 'No' in the forthcoming referendum to change the voting system in British general elections. This Easter weekend I had a long conversation with one of these friends, during which I came to understand his objections to the change on offer, and I recognise some real problems with AV; however these are not sufficient to justify a 'No' vote, especially if you are a democratic, freedom-loving left-winger. If you are one of those, please let me explain why you should reconsider your decision to oppose this change:

It seems that the over-riding reason for opposing AV among lefties is that it is thought that it might lead to a more bland, centrist style of politics in which the Liberal Democrats will hold the balance of power, most of the time, if not forever. Owen Jones makes
this case in his blog. A similar case is put forward in another Labour blog, here. Both offer well articulated arguments. However, I believe this is a grave misconception, which the 'No' campaign would dearly love us to accept. The first big clue that this is a misconception comes from the very composition of the 'No' campaign itself: a reactionary cocktail mixed from the Taxpayers' Alliance, the Tory right, the BNP and the hyper-authoritarian Blairite wing of the Labour party (John Reid, Margaret Beckett, et al). Still, this issue is too important to indulge in ad hominem arguments. Many on the left see the referendum as a chance to give Nick Clegg a well-deserved kicking. This is probably the best reason to vote 'No'; a reason with which I can thoroughly identify, but it's just not good enough when it comes to a fundamental matter of the mechanics of democracy. On the other hand, Labour supporters might also want to consider the fact that a 'Yes' vote would severely weaken David Cameron.

So, why is it a mistake to think that AV would lead to more bland, centrist politics? First, it could hardly have escaped anyone's notice that the current climate of political debate is already about as bland and centrist as it is possible to be. Why is that? Well, who decides elections, in practice? Left-wing voters in inner city ghettos? No. Elections under first-past-the-post (FPTP) are decided by a tiny number of floating voters in a small number of marginal constituencies; about 1.6% of the electorate. These people tend to read tabloid newspapers and watch the X-Factor. At present, if you want to win an election, you need to pander to them. No one else counts. Labour takes the inner-city vote for granted and the Tories can always rely on the country squires. This is why you can barely squeeze a blue Rizla between the two main parties on policy. They both accept the neo-liberal economic consensus, the need for cuts and the inviolable rights of banks to rip us all off, ad infinitum. None of this can ever possibly change under our current voting system. We are completely at the mercy of media pundits and the voters they manipulate.

The status quo is completely unacceptable, if you support progressive politics. There is no case for FPTP over AV when it comes to a consideration of fairness and democracy. Why should it take
10 times as many votes to elect a Liberal Democrat MP as a Conservative MP? This is indefensible, no matter how much you may hate Liberal Democrats. The reason is partly because the Lib Dem vote is more uniformly spread across the country. Why should the geographical concentration of support have such a huge effect on the way our democracy functions? Would you accept that fact if it were the Labour vote (or even Conservative vote) that were spread out, and the Lib Dem vote were more concentrated? In their hearts, even opponents of change understand that AV is marginally more democratic than FPTP. It is totally obvious that AV gives voters more power to influence elections, because it means fewer votes will be wasted. The argument is best summarised by a cartoon:

Cartoon by R. Douglas Johnson
It is also untrue that AV would disadvantage smaller parties, as has been claimed by the Socialist Party, among others. It has been pointed out that in Australia, the Greens got 11.8% of the vote but only 1 MP out of 150, under AV, whilst we have 1 Green MP in the UK with only 1% of the vote. The point to understand here is that AV leads to an increased vote for smaller parties, although it doesn't generally give them more MPs. That's because people are free to express their true opinions under AV, without wasting their vote. AV is not PR, but that 1 Australian Green MP would equate to 4 MPs in the 650 seat House of Commons, so AV does have the potential to benefit smaller parties, by increasing their vote, although minor parties are unlikely to win many more seats. The increased vote for minor parties also gives them a chance to influence the policies of other similar parties who might want to court transfer votes. On the other hand, AV makes it impossible to elect a candidate who is strongly opposed by a local majority: this will often be a BNP candidate, or perhaps even a Tory, which may explain their opposition to AV. It is most unlikely to affect the prospects of the Greens, who are not  widely reviled. They will still find it hard to win seats, but no more so than under FPTP.

But what of the alternative? The 'Yes' campaign has been guilty of grossly exaggerating the benefits of AV over FPTP. Whilst this has been as nothing compared to the outright lies peddled by the 'No' campaign, the truth is that AV is only a very small improvement over FPTP, in terms of democracy. The evidence is that it is only a very marginally more proportional system, most of the time, although it may increase the effect of a landslide. FPTP is almost as likely to lead to hung parliaments, and the Australian experience with AV suggests that coalitions are not going to be the norm. In any case, the evidence is very sketchy and based on a host of assumptions backed by very little firm data; it is 90% guesswork. It is important to understand that the outcome of elections depends crucially on the political landscape and context: this is true under any electoral system. Here is where AV offers real improvement: it promotes plurality because it gives voters the power to express their true preference, as Sunny Hundal argues on LibCon.

FPTP is designed for a two-party system. It simply doesn't make any sense in a multi-party democracy where voters feel increasingly disinclined to support the two main parties. I grew up during a time when the left-wing vote was split, most obviously in the 1983 election. This delivered a landslide victory for Margaret Thatcher's Tory party on 42% of the vote, despite the fact that most voters were clearly opposed to their policies. The splitting of the left-wing vote produced 17 years of extreme neo-liberal Tory government, until the Labour party finally learned to pander to those tabloid-reading floating voters in marginal seats. The result was a further 10 years of neo-liberal Thatcherism, but with the smiley face of Tony Blair on the poster - admittedly we did get more money for health and education but at the huge cost of foreign wars for oil, PFI scams, tuition fees, lower social mobility, deregulation, welfare for bankers and a vicious attack on our civil liberties.

A recent YouGov poll suggests that
Labour would now be the main losers if AV were adopted in preference to FPTP. This is very much in contrast to what would have been the case for most of the past 30 years, including the 2010 election. A closer look at that poll reveals that Labour, with 42% of the vote, would still have an outright majority under both FPTP and AV. The only effect of AV would be to reduce the Labour majority by a mere 13 seats, which I consider to be a good thing, as it would reduce the power of the executive over the legislature. The Tories would have the same number of seats under either system, so the Lib Dems - as ever - would be the beneficiaries, although they would still have less than half as many seats as they have now, due to the collapse in their support - and yet they would still be under-represented! In short, the political landscape has changed, and that is why Labour is no longer necessarily the biggest loser from FPTP. It looks like it may now be the right-wing vote that is fragmented, for the very first time in history. The Tories are fighting for reactionary votes with UKIP, the BNP and the right-of-centre rump of the Lib Dems. This may well be a temporary state of affairs, though, bearing in mind the rising support for the Green party and the possibility that the Lib Dems may rediscover their principles and position themselves to the left of Labour, as they have done for the past 3 or 4 elections, to great effect.

None of this really matters. It would be foolish in the extreme to make a decision on electoral reform on the basis of narrow party political advantage as revealed by a snapshot of voting intentions from a single poll at a single moment in history. This momentary advantage of FPTP to the Labour party is not even that great (13 seats in an overall majority either way). Still, it seems that many Labour supporters, especially left-wing activists, have a gut feeling that anything which benefits the Lib Dems must be opposed. There is considerable tribalism in this feeling (often based on local antipathies), and its intellectual justification is a half-thought-out assumption that AV will lead to more centrist politics. I hope I've already shown that this assumption has no basis and that centrist politics is rather a consequence of FPTP.

In fact, there is a condsiderable body of voters and potential voters to the left of Labour, whose views are largely ignored and whose votes are taken for granted or considered surplus to requirements by the party. Many of them voted Lib Dem in 2010 and have since been attracted either to Ed Milliband's more leftish style of Labour politics, or to the revitalised Green party, which is well to the left of Labour on most issues, and far less authoritarian. Electoral reform at last holds out the possibility of galvanising a broad left majority capable of steering the Labour party away from the neo-liberal consensus of the past 30 years. We must not let this opportunity slip away. The centre is the ground already occupied by the two main parties; it makes no sense to 'reach out' to that ground, where there is no room for manoeuvre. AV would give Labour an incentive to reach out to the left instead - to the Greens, socialists and remaining left-wing Lib Dems - in pursuit of the transfer votes it will need to defeat the Tories who, at the same time, are likely to pursue transfers from parties to the right of them, like UKIP. This could well shake up the political consensus in a way that is desperately needed.

AV will not solve all the problems of our broken electoral system. It may well not solve any of them to a great extent. But a 'Yes' vote will send out a clear message that we cannot put up with this bland rubbish that passes for democracy any longer. We need to shift the electoral battleground away from a handful of floating voters in marginal constituencies. AV is only a small step in the right direction, but it is the start of a process of wider electoral reform, including reform of the House of Lords, which must not be sacrificed for the sake of nit-picking objections, tribal prejudices, short-term advantage or a misplaced nostalgia for the two-party politics of the 1950s. If there is a 'No' vote on 5th May, we can be sure that supporters of the status quo will use it to block all attempts at electoral reform for decades to come. This is exactly why the Taxpayer's Alliance and the Tory right want us to vote 'No', which is exactly why we should vote 'Yes' to AV.

I will end on a completely shameless ad hominem argument, which you should probably ignore. Here are the two chaps who most desperately need a 'No' vote on May 5th, and this is how they will look if you give it to them, because the current system serves their interests perfectly, even when they are not in power:

Addendum 26/4/11: Neal Lawson wrote a similar piece to mine on 15th April in Open Democracy, which is well worth reading and makes it perfectly clear that it is the forces of reaction, wealth and privilege which have the most to lose from a 'Yes' vote. In case you doubt this, note that the 'No' campaign is largely funded by big business and wealthy bankers such as Peter Cruddas (founder of derivatives dealers CMC Markets), Lord Sainsbury, Peter Hargreaves (head of Hargreaves Lansdown) and Lord Fink (head of Man Group), as confirmed by the bankers' propaganda sheet, CityAM in today's issue (page 10).

Ask yourself why these people, the Tories, the TPA and the BNP all desperately want a 'No' vote. Ask yourself that question and think hard about it over and over again from now until May 5th.

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