When Keir Hardie joined up to the forerunner of the Electoral Reform Society when it was founded in 1884, it is unlikely that he did so with the expectation that MPs would continue to be elected by a crude first-past-the-post system in the 21st century. Not that the British public has ever been consulted on this before now of course. But this will change on 5 May, when the first UK‑wide referendum in 36 years will give voters an opportunity to change the system, albeit only by delivering the relatively moderate reform represented by the Alternative Vote.
Here, Red Pepper regulars Hilary Wainwright and Kevin Blowe put forward their different positions.
Kevin Blowe argues that we should vote ‘No’ to help break the Tory-Lib Dem coalition
There are many more important expressions of democratic involvement than voting. There are inherent dangers in placing our limited reserves of hope and energy into handing politics over to a professional class – one that has repeatedly sought to maintain the status quo – and then blindly legitimising their control over our lives by turning up at a polling booth every few years.
That’s why I feel distinctly underwhelmed by a referendum to tinker with the way we choose between competing Westminster professionals.
At least, tactically, a genuine proportional representation system might allow more space for voices from beyond the mainstream. But the proposed Alternative Vote (AV) system isn’t proportionate. Instant run-off voting is designed to make the current ‘first-past-the-post’ system seem more acceptable, but like all elections where the winner takes all, it only creates the false impression of majority support. In fact, AV is more likely to squeeze out any minority parties, reduce the impact of protest votes and reinforce the blandness of political debate.
Even commentators such as Martin Kettle in the Guardian, who is supporting the Yes campaign, acknowledges that AV is a system that no one supports. But it was central to the coalition negotiations last May, ‘the prize that finally persuaded the Lib Dems they could go in with David Cameron’.
Politically, this leads to an obvious conclusion for those of us who don’t much care which of the mainstream parties stand to gain or lose from AV. The outcome of the referendum will, one way or another, have an impact on the increasingly fragile bonds between the two governing parties. A ‘Yes’ vote will strengthen the coalition, while voting ‘No’ against a voting system that isn’t proportionate and that no one supports may help to break it.
So perhaps, for once, there’s a reason for voting in this one after all. The arguments put forward by the No2AV campaign may represent a reactionary endorsement of the current electoral system, but the same isn’t necessarily true of every individual ‘No’ vote. Rejection of AV can also represent a deliberate act of mischief, a considered rejection of Tory attempts to buy the complicity of Clegg’s Lib Dems in their destruction of public services.
Hilary Wainwright says we should vote ‘Yes’ to help break
our undemocratic system
Why should someone deeply sceptical about parliamentary politics, at least as we know it, lift a finger for AV? My starting point is Thomas Rainsborough’s powerful argument for extending the franchise, irrespective of wealth and property: ‘The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he . . . every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under the government . . . the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under . . .’
Four centuries from Rainsborough’s declaration, eight decades from the suffragettes winning the universal franchise, UK prime ministers govern without a mandate of the majority, and governments regularly implement policies that benefit the rich or the corporations and over which the poorest effectively have no say – the dismantling of the NHS being the latest such contempt of the voter.
In other words, a democratic victory – the winning of the universal right to vote, opening a dynamic towards more radical democratic reforms, has been turned into new system of elite rule.
The ‘winner takes all’ electoral system has been important in this process, contributing to the mythologies of democratic rule that have veiled the nature of the UK’s unwritten, monarchical constitution.
These opaque arrangements in turn have protected the financial interests of the City that have shaped what are and aren’t allowed as policy options in public debate. No wonder the financial and political establishment is now closing ranks to ensure that this guard against genuine public accountability stays in place.
Evidence of the mass disenfranchisement that is part of this electoral system is overwhelming and well publicised. But another, less publicised consequence of first-past-the-post voting has been the slow death of a critical political culture. It underpins the pull of electoral competition towards the political centre. Instead of enabling representative democracy to, as Raymond Williams put it, ‘re-present’ the plurality of views held by the population, it effectively excludes or politically kettles the wide range of alternatives to ‘the mainstream’.
This has got worse under corporate globalisation, which has transformed the hidden rules of political debate. The power of the global market has meant that policies in its favour are presented as unavoidable, turning politics into a process of technical economic management.
A challenge to this process requires a concerted expansion of the argument and debate that is necessary for political creativity. Instead, the New Labour leadership – whose legacy is proving difficult to dismantle – treated open debate as beyond the bounds of legitimate politics. Now, sucked into the quicksand of the centre ground, the Lib Dem leadership does the same.
So I’m viewing the referendum as an opportunity to open up a process of structural political change, an opportunity that is a result of us, the voters, refusing to place our trust in existing political options. In answer to Kevin Blowe, it’s far more important than punishing Nick Clegg. Clegg’s clinging to the coat tails of Cameron is a product of the present system, and he and the Lib Dems will not be able to control the dynamic of change that even the minimal opening of AV represents.
AV is not proportional and it’s not the solution. But it will force an opening up of political debate. Alternative views, previously marginalised or excluded, would become a legitimate part of the political process – perhaps in a minimal way at first, but with an angry, alienated and determined electorate there would be a real possibility of it opening up an uncertain dynamic. AV will enable voters to demonstrate their true first preferences, which currently are masked by the absence of alternatives and because many people have to vote tactically or abstain.
For example, the growing resistance to the idea that ‘there is no alternative’ to the cuts could, through AV, make itself directly part of the political process. The kind of electoral challenge made by Dr Richard Taylor in Worcester could become a powerful political force, since such campaigns can attract support from broad stretches of the community. True, smaller left parties would continue to find it difficult to win seats: that would require genuine proportional representation (PR). But AV could challenge the main parties to relate to forces outside of Westminster, strengthen the ability of parties like the Greens to better identify their support at local level, and lay the foundations for new progressive alliances in the future.
A ‘No’ vote to electoral reform would send out all the wrong messages, and be trumpeted as evidence that the British public is broadly content with our politics. Worse still, it might derail existing commitments to see PR introduced for the second chamber. It wouldn’t so much weaken the coalition as confirm our own powerlessness in the face of the interests that guide its agenda. It’s not for nothing that the head of the Taxpayers’ Alliance has given up his time to lead the ‘No’ campaign.
I will grasp the opportunity of the referendum to vote for AV as a vote for change, to initiate a dynamic of change driven from below not just for genuine proportional representation at Westminster but for a participatory constituent assembly to produce a democratic written constitution, the objectives of which could well incorporate the egalitarian spirit of Rainsborough.
How does AV work?
Hilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute.
Kevin Blowe is a community centre worker and activist in Newham, east London.