A very unpopular movement for democratic reform

The current campaign to overhaul the electoral system is motored more by the needs of a disconnected elite than by popular demand.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics UK

In May next year, Britain’s electorate will get to vote in a referendum on whether we’d like to change our current First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system to that of the Alternative Vote (AV). This ought to be something of an event, given that the last and only referendum put before the electorate was in 1975, when a majority voted for Britain’s continued membership of the then newly rebranded European Community.

It’s fair to say, however, that the prospect of the referendum is exciting nobody. As Matthew Elliott, head of NO2AV, told me: ‘Even for those who recognise [the referendum] is happening, they’re wondering “why is this going on?”… They’re wondering why MPs are spending so long – five committee days in the past fortnight – debating what for most people is a marginal issue when they’re worried about their jobs.’

As the man charged with campaigning against AV, Elliott would say that, wouldn’t he? But it’s not just Elliott having a pop at the referendum. The Guardian, a paper that came out in favour of electoral reform during the General Election, published an editorial earlier this month which was equally as disillusioned: ‘Alternative Vote: Loved by no one’, the headline ran. Even those involved in the purple-clad, Suffragette-invoking Take Back Parliament protests, which gained much publicity in May this year, now seem less than enamoured by the prospect of the referendum. ‘It’s not the choice that I’d like to have been offered’, says OpenDemocracy co-founder Anthony Barnett in a phone interview, before he attempts to explain his support for a ‘yes’ to AV: ‘What matters about [the referendum], what is more important than the voting system, is that they are placing the voting system in the hands of the population.’

Still, it’s difficult to get away from the problem that offering AV is a compromise between the Liberal Democrats’ long-held dream of proportional representation and Tory contentment with the status quo, a compromise born of the sequestered machinations of the coalition government. The result is an alternative system which no one wants. It has made the referendum into a choice between the familiar rock of FPTP and the convoluted hard place of AV.

There’s no doubt that there are problems with FPTP. Vast swathes of votes for unsuccessful candidates in each constituency are effectively ignored. FPTP means that a party like the Lib Dems can get, say, over 20 per cent of the popular vote, but only a handful of the 650 parliamentary seats available. Such distortions probably explain why no country adopted the FPTP system during the twentieth century, preferring variations on the theme of proportional representation instead.

But AV does not seem to be a much of an alternative. Resolutely majoritarian rather than proportional, AV simply makes the demand that every winning candidate must have over 50 per cent of the vote. To do this the AV system asks the voter to list his or her candidate choices in order of preference – 1,2,3 etc. If, after the first count, no one candidate has over 50 per cent of the votes cast, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated, and those who voted for them have their second preferences counted instead. This goes on until one candidate achieves the magical benchmark of 50 per cent.

Effectively, then, a winning candidate can have the appearance of popularity, the semblance of legitimacy, without any of the substance. After all, there is a distinction, as the 1998 Jenkins report into electoral reform made clear, between support for a candidate and acquiescence to their election.

So, if we must choose between electoral systems, then surely that choice should involve a system at least based on the principle of proportional representation? That is, the outcome of an election would be decided on the basis that each party fielding candidates ‘is allocated a proportion of the seats commensurate with its proportion of the votes cast’ (1). Doesn’t this seem to be the most accurate way to represent something like the democratic will of the electorate?

Again there are problems, such as PR’s tendency towards hung parliaments and coalition governments, and all the anti-democratic, backroom dealing that entails, but if it was a choice in the referendum between FPTP and PR, not AV, at least people could debate a genuine alternative. Even Elliott himself seems to be in favour of such a choice: ‘I think it would be interesting to have a debate on FPTP versus PR’, he tells me: ‘When it comes to PR versus FPTP, I massively respect the people who propose PR – I understand where they’re coming from. But I’m still in the FPTP camp.’

However, while it might be geekily tempting, as the Alice in Wonderland creator and Electoral Reform Society founder Charles Dodgson discovered, to disappear into the philosophical-cum-mathematical labyrinth of different voting systems, it is also misleading. This is because electoral reform – and a discussion of voting systems – does not occur in isolation from society as a technical puzzle for which there is, somewhere, a technical solution. Rather, the meaning of electoral reform, its political significance, is intimately bound up with the constellation of social forces at any given historical moment. And that is what makes this current discussion of electoral reform so curious. For what was once historically, from the Levellers to the Suffragettes, a popular, potentially revolutionary struggle for our enfranchisement is now at risk of turning into its opposite: a largely elite-driven campaign to re-establish some veneer of popular legitimacy for an isolated political class. It is less about enfranchising us than justifying them.

This is not how it has appeared, however. Back in May, when the Take Back Parliament umbrella campaign group staged a series of well-publicised protests in central London calling for electoral reform, strikingly dressed in purple – a nod to the Suffragettes – the protest consciously located itself in a centuries-old tradition of pro-democracy struggle. Yet the garb and rhetoric of past struggles do not illuminate the origin of the contemporary push for electoral reform – rather they obscure it. For it is not from the demands of the people that the current reformist demiurge springs, but from the needs of the political class.

Historically, this is quite a reversal. Again and again, throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whether it was the Leveller-inspired demand that ‘the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he’, or the American and French Revolution-influenced upheaval during the 1790s, or the Chartist struggles of the 1840s, or even the violent clashes of the 1860s and 1870s, those demanding electoral reform and the enfranchisement even of the propertyless ran up against a parliamentary elite reluctant to reform an electoral system that worked in their luxuriously propertied interests. This stemmed from one concern; they were terrified of whom the ‘swinish multitude’, as Edmund Burke put it, might vote.

But, as reluctant and fearful as the English aristocracy was, they also knew they had to make concessions – a lower property qualification here, a rotten borough abolition there – to avoid stoking potentially revolutionary fires yet further. The Great Reform Act of 1832, the Reform Acts of the 1860s and 1880s, the Representation Act of 1918… all were testaments to the vacillating struggle between the people demanding greater say over their lives and those frightened of what that say might involve. That was always the key to the popular struggle for changes to the electoral system. People didn’t just want the formal side, the ability to exercise one’s democratic right – they wanted the content side, too, the ability to give their interests political expression.

However, there were also moments in the past, in the nineteenth century in particular, when sections of the elite campaigned for PR for very different reasons to the mass democratic movements for enfranchisement (see Tackling the ‘madness of the majority’, by Brendan O’Neill). Their aim was to ensure that the privileged interests of the ‘sensible’ minority were never swamped by the dubious, mobbish majority (of around five million men), newly enfranchised under the Second Reform Act of 1867 and the Third Reform Act of 1884. This elitist disdain was articulated best by influential cultural critic Matthew Arnold, a prominent supporter of PR, who judged ‘the aims and doings of the majority of men to be at present very faulty’. PR was advocated in order to preserve the interests of the minority and temper the power of the majority. Anti-majoritarian rhetoric was built upon anti-masses prejudice. When today’s campaigners for electoral reform talk of ‘an end to Punch and Judy politics’, an overcoming of voters ‘tribal’ voting habits, this same elitist disdain for the views of the mass of the electorate persists.

Since the attainment of universal suffrage, the meaning of electoral reform has become increasingly elitist and technical. It has become an issue of form rather than content, of legitimacy rather than politics. Hence it briefly became something of an issue in the aftermath of the 1974 General Election, when the Conservative Party won more votes than Labour but finished second. It has undoubtedly become an issue more recently, too. In 1997, the newly elected New Labour government announced the setting up of the Independent Commission on the Voting System, headed by Lord Jenkins, which delivered its report the following year. More recently, the Ministry of Justice produced a report in 2008 on The Governance of Britain. Review of Voting Systems: The Experience of New Voting Systems in the United Kingdom.

Yet despite exercising and vexing the political class, outside Westminster there has not been much in the way of popular clamour for electoral reform. As reported by Policy Exchange in a recent document: ‘MORI’s long-running series asking the public to name important issues facing Britain demonstrates almost total indifference to the admittedly very broad category of “Scottish / Welsh Assembly / Devolution / Constitutional Reform”. The proportion of the public mentioning this as an important issue did not exceed two per cent between May 1997 and June 2010 and was often not mentioned at all.’ In other words, the impetus for electoral reform is not coming from without a disconnected political elite, but from within. Electoral reform has become a means not so much to appease a disenfranchised mass, but to reach out to them, to re-engage them.

Hence in the aftermath of the publication of the Jenkins report in 1998, Labour MP Stephen Twigg argued that voting reform was ‘one part of a broad movement to reconnect people with politics in this country’. More recently, when I spoke to Andy May, the national co-ordinator of the Take Back Parliament campaign, he gave voice not so much to the interests of the angry and disenfranchised, but to the nagging sense of illegitimacy that haunts today’s political class. ‘The expenses crisis was the last straw really… It was good to see the turnout increase at the last election, but before that there was increasing voter apathy and lowering turnouts. The people you speak to on the streets do think politics is broken, they don’t relate to MPs, and we think that the voting system is integral to addressing these problems.’

I have little doubt that restoring to the political class the democratic ‘trust’ it has forsaken, re-legitimising it through voting reform, is not a conscious objective for the likes of May. He seems too passionate and well-intentioned for that. But no matter how much you dress up the coalescence of various ‘civil society organisations’, as he describes Take Back Parliament, in the robes of past pro-democracy struggles, the elite content of the current drive is hard to ignore.

Elsewhere, for instance, the left-leaning think tank Compass has come out in favour of a Yes vote in the referendum on AV, not because there is some popular political content trembling on the edge of articulation if only there was the means to express it, but simply because it might make politics popular. ‘It is the rules of the democratic journey that matter’, a Compass report states. ‘As such means and ends become unified, the empowerment of the people is the goal we seek.’ Barnett, too, seems to partly share this sentiment. Imagining, alongside three other potential outcomes, the possibility of ‘a very large and energetic booting out of the FPTP system’, he could see the claim on the use of referenda ‘becoming positive, not just reluctant’. It might encourage people to say ‘“look we know how to do it and we want another one” – whether it’s on Europe or something else. So the process becomes empowering: it becomes a democratising “yes” vote and not a depressing one.’

Barnett’s enthusiasm and democratic verve is undeniable. Yet behind the splendid rhetoric, indeed behind pro-AV campaigners’ backs, the process of giving back to the elite the legitimacy it craves seems to be at work. Today’s call for a new electoral system is not so much about people empowering themselves, as people being empowered by others. This is political participation at a purely formal level. Little wonder that the root causes of popular disenchantment with parliamentary politics – manifest in the dearth of anything inspiring enough to want to vote for – remain untouched. Even a man as optimistic as Barnett is not without his concerns: ‘[The political class] is bordering on the edge of ceasing to be seen as legitimate. By having a referendum where the choice is so weak, they are reinforcing the illegitimacy rather than recovering it. That should be a very big worry for the political class, and certainly for the coalition.’ And, one might add, for AV campaigners, too.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked. He will be chairing the debate Electoral Reform: purple revolution or middle-class obsession? at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on Sunday 31 October.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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