Why AV won’t make for ‘better politicians’

The Alternative Vote system will produce MPs who are even more lame and principle-lite than the current bunch.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Politics UK

Pro-Alternative Vote (AV) campaigners would have you believe that if you vote ‘Yes’ to AV in the referendum in May then, seemingly overnight and by a simple change to the electoral system, politicians will become ‘better’. But a switch to AV would have exactly the opposite effect. It would force MPs to appeal more to those who don’t agree with them than those who do. Under the guise of being ‘pro-electorate’, AV undermines the idea of commitment to a party’s policies and defending the interests of any particular section of the electorate.

‘[AV] forces us to be better politicians’, declared shadow Cabinet minister Tessa Jowell in a special referendum edition of the BBC’s Daily Politics show last week. It will, she argues, make politicians ‘behave differently’, making politicians reach ‘out beyond what might be defined as a core vote’.

Others go even further, with deputy prime minister Nick Clegg arguing that AV will force politicians to be less complacent and suggesting that it was ‘because there were so many MPs taking their constituents for granted that so many abused their expenses’.

This problematic argument has been used by a wide range of Yes to AV campaigners, from celebrities, such as comedian Eddie Izzard, to the former director general of the BBC, Greg Dyke. Hearing it from elected MPs, however, raises even more questions. Why does Tessa Jowell believe she needs a technical fix to the election system to make her and her colleagues better politicians? Why doesn’t she make the effort to reach out beyond her core vote now? Is the MPs’ expenses scandal really down to the fact that at the moment the public vote for only one candidate, rather than ranking a number of candidates in order of preference? They sound like pathetic, self-loathing smokers lobbying for a blanket ban on cigarettes as they are too weak-willed to kick the habit themselves.

But, more fundamentally, is it really true that politicians who reach out to the broadest possible cross-section of the electorate are in some way ‘better’? In many ways this is the cornerstone of the pro-AV Yes to Fairer Votes campaign, which argues that the change in the system will ‘force complacent politicians to sit up and listen, and reach out to the communities they seek to represent’, forcing them ‘to work harder to win – and keep – your support’. As Nick Clegg puts it, as a result of AV, politicians ‘will be more legitimate and will carry a stronger mandate from a broader range of people. That can only be good for our democracy.’

In fact, the opposite is the case. Far from being transformed into better politicians, AV will increase the number of managerial politicians who are ideology-lite, acting as sponges desperately trying to soak up the ideas of the electorate and representing the middle ground. Rather than having politicians who believe in something and work with their parties to bring about a vision for change, AV will exacerbate the recent tendency towards spineless, agreeable, reactive, lame candidates.

The big plus-point for AV, from the point of view of many politicians, is the idea that it might grant politicians more legitimacy at a time when the political elite is deeply estranged from the public it claims to represent.

Consensual politics is seen to be a good thing by many leading politicians today. Labour leader Ed Miliband champions the fact that politicians will become less argumentative, engaging with each other in ways that are less a battle of ideas and more a love-in. Revealing just how woefully out of touch he is with the public, which often bemoans the fact that there are no major differences between any of the parties, Miliband emphasises that AV will ‘[f]orce parties to admit where there is agreement between them, prising open our confrontational system so that similarities sometimes become as important as differences… Exaggerating disagreement in order to create false black-and-white choices under first-past-the-post has only added to a particular style of politics that turns off the electorate.’

These comments show the extent of Miliband’s historical amnesia. He fails to recognise that there was a time when political parties genuinely reflected competing interests in society. For Miliband, however, such divisions between parties appear primarily to be a PR or branding exercise, like those undertaken by Pepsi and Coke, to convince the public there are major differences between what are, effectively, identical products. He fails to recognise that if the public is turned off by ‘Punch-and-Judy’ politics, it’s because the attempt to convey divisions is a staged performance rather than a genuine clash of ideas about how best to run the country.

While pro-AV campaigners acknowledge that the public is broadly disinterested in the forthcoming referendum, this doesn’t stop them from loudly asserting that AV is in the public’s interests. It will, they patronisingly claim, ‘re-engage’ the public by – in the words of the Miliband – ‘ensuring the voice of the public is heard louder than it has been in the past’.

This oft-made fallacious assertion that the current electoral system deprives people of a voice and is the cause of widespread voter disengagement has long been made by the narrow-minded, technically focused electoral reform lobby. As Brendan O’Neill has pointed out previously on spiked, too many modern-day electoral reformers mistake ‘a serious political crisis – involving collapsing ideologies, a dearth of big and inspiring ideas, and a gaping chasm between the public and the political parties – as simply a technical problem of how we vote’.

Pro-AV campaigners appear to believe that a minor change to the electoral system will make politicians and the public alike ‘better’. But if politicians can’t become ‘better’ without a technical change in the electoral system, then they really aren’t worthy of our votes. They need to engage us through ideas and competing visions for society, not by aiming for the middle ground and reinforcing the stereotype of politicians as ‘all being alike’. Far from resolving the many problems in politics, AV will serve to institutionalise further the crisis of legitimacy amongst the political elite and increase voter disengagement.

Anyone who believes politics should be a battle of ideas instead of political parties engaging in a group hug should say ‘no’ in the AV referendum on 5 May.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.

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Topics Politics UK


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