The democratic case against alternative voting

There’s way too much opportunism in the debate on AV, says Frank Furedi: here are the real reasons you should say ‘No’ on Thursday.

Frank Furedi

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Topics Politics UK

Even asking the question ‘why are we having a referendum on AV?’ can be seen as argument for voting against AV at the polling booths in Britain this Thursday.

Historically, electoral reform has normally come about in response to the public’s demand for greater democratic participation. The Reform Act of 1832 was a response to widespread agitation for the extension of the franchise. Indeed, it was only after the violent riots of 1831 that the political oligarchy made concessions to people’s aspiration for the right to vote. Almost a century later, the 1928 Reform Act finally gave all women over 21 the right to vote – that is, on the same basis as men. And this Fifth Reform Act was also preceded by a great deal of protest and streetfighting and a debate that involved the whole of British society.

The contrast between those historical episodes of electoral reform and the current top-down, elite-instigated AV referendum could not be more striking. The main public reaction to the referendum on the alternative vote, which is presented even by its supporters as a ‘compromise’ initiative, is one of indifference. Yes, a small coterie of party activists have very strong views on the referendum, but the electorate has no intellectual, emotional or moral investment in the outcome whatsoever.

So the first argument against this AV referendum is that it is not motivated by the impulse of genuine reform, but rather by the imperative of ‘impression management’ on the part of politicians. As everyone knows, this referendum is the outcome of a deal between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems which was designed to salvage Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s reputation amongst his party members and supporters. There is nothing inherently wrong in doing a bit of political face-saving. It only becomes a problem when such an opportunistically cobbled-together deal is recycled and repackaged as a genuine attempt to give greater meaning to democratic life in Britain. In truth, the AV referendum came about as an act of utter political cynicism. So the first reason to oppose AV is that it does not express the spirit of democratic reform, but rather encapsulates the manipulative agenda of today’s political oligarchy.

The only recent example that can compete with this hollow campaign for AV was John Prescott’s half-witted devolution-for-Northern-England referendum in November 2004. This, too, was a referendum dreamt up behind-the-scenes by public relations operators who presented their gimmick as a serious blow for reform. In this instance they promised to devolve power to the people of the North through setting up regional assemblies. In the event, Prescott’s political manoeuvre was rejected by 78 per cent of those who bothered to vote. Even though it deserves to be equally overwhelmingly rejected, AV is likely to garner a bit more electoral support than the northern devolution campaign. Why? Because it has been adopted by many as a vehicle to embarrass the government.

Now in principle, opponents have every right, even a duty, to challenge the government of the day. Questioning and even humiliating a reigning government are entirely honourable enterprises. But what is sordid about the campaign in support of AV, which is really an attempt to get one over on the Conservatives (who oppose AV), is that it is promoting an entirely unprincipled change to the electoral system that would have no public benefits. So the second reason for rejecting the campaign for AV is that it is fuelled by narrow party factionalism and is entirely devoid of principle.

The absence of principles

Matters that have a fundamental bearing on the constitution of public life ought to be informed by a principled assessment of what is in the best interests of society. At best, however, AV represents an unhappy compromise (Clegg called it a ‘miserable little compromise’) for a section of the Lib Dems, a party that actually believes in proportional representation (PR). At least this section of the political class can, with some integrity, claim that on Thursday they will be voting for a watered-down version of PR. But matters are very different for someone like Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, who in his support for AV is putting the very short-term goal of embarrassing prime minister David Cameron ahead of principle. As everyone knows, it is only in the past four months that we have had a Labour leader with seemingly strong views on AV; he never said anything about it before. Miliband’s campaign for AV has as much to do with genuine democratic reform as his party’s 2004 referendum was really about devolving power to the people.

Indeed, one of the most disturbing features of the AV referendum is the almost total absence, on both sides, of any ideas that touch on substantive questions about the nature of democratic life in Britain. Debates about what are the most suitable arrangements for democratic voting and representation in Britain ought to be based on serious assessments of principle and impact, regardless of short-term party interest. But, unfortunately, such debate is conspicuous by its absence in the run-up to Thursday. In an article titled ‘Vote yes to AV if you want to see Tories feel the fear again’, Martin Kettle at the Guardian at least acknowledges in passing that the ‘AV referendum campaign ought to be an argument on the merits’ and adds that ‘it ought to be about fairness’. Sadly, such an obvious point about what the debate ‘ought’ to be about is very rarely made. Even more sadly, Kettle ruins it all by concluding with an argument for AV that has absolutely nothing to do with fairness or the merits of the case:

‘[I]f you want to harm the coalition, vote yes to AV. If you want to make the British establishment fear Labour again, vote yes. If you are happy to see Labour snubbed by princes and taunted by prime ministers, by all means vote for the status quo, and see where it gets you.’

It appears that fairness and other basic principles have become commodities that can all too easily be bargained off in the name of ‘harming the coalition’. Sadly, both sides of the AV debate seem to feel liberated from any need to justify their arguments through a principled position on democratic accountability. So when David Cameron argues against AV on the basis that it will be too costly – all that ‘extra expense of counting votes’ – he risks losing the moral argument for democracy altogether. After all, balloting the people will always be more expensive than simply relying on executive diktat.

My concern with the absence of principle in the AV debate is not motivated by some saintly, high-minded view of how political debate ought to be. Yes, we need to alter the language of political life, and quite dramatically too. But in this instance, the absence of any real content in the debate expresses an even more disturbing feature of public life. For some time now, managerial initiatives masquerading as political reforms have been widespread in British public life. There have been incessant arguments about how to ‘engage’ with the public. Numerous gimmicks – such as encouraging people to vote in elections online or while at the supermarket – have been proposed in a desperate attempt to endow elections with greater legitimacy. What all these projects have in common is the substitution of technical/managerial-driven policies for any genuine attempt to initiate a discussion that treats voters as mature adults.

AV is less democratic

In principle, the most democratic form of voting is some variant of proportional representation. The main merit of PR is that it allows for a diverse variety of views and interests to be represented. Typically, smaller and fringe parties – which are often marginalised in the first-past-the-post system – are able to exercise some influence in circumstances where PR prevails.

However, every form of voting has some advantage. The main advantage of Britain’s current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system is that it can provide greater political stability than PR. It often allows a mainstream party to gain a parliamentary majority and this avoids the uncertainties associated with coalition politics. In Britain, FPTP was not seen as dysfunctional in any way until the 1970s. February 1974 was the first election since the Second World War when neither of the main parties enjoyed a clear electoral majority: Labour secured more seats but with fewer votes than the Conservatives. In the 1980s, the Liberals and other third or fourth parties continued to be at an electoral disadvantage in three-cornered contests.

Although PR provides a more representative electoral outcome, it is not without its democratic deficits. In many societies, PR leads to a situation where the political outcome is ultimately decided by party managers as they wheel and deal with one another to cobble together a coalition government. In such circumstances, relatively small parties can insinuate themselves into positions of significant influence. Consequently, sometimes PR can actually lead to unexpected coalition arrangements that distort the electorate’s wishes. PR also gives party managers tremendous power to decide who is included and who is excluded from the list of candidates running for electoral office. Typically in PR-dominated institutions, individual representatives enjoy less independence and are less likely to follow their conscience than constituency MPs are.

The system of AV represents an even more caricatured version of PR. It has very few of PR’s advantages but all of its disadvantages. The most disturbing feature of AV is its institutionalisation of voting for second-preference candidates. Second-preference voting implicitly creates an incentive for being the second- or even third-best alternative, to water down one’s views in order to appeal for people’s second or third preferences. That will only encourage people to vote tactically rather from a standpoint of principle or conviction. In an era where opportunism is already the dominant political style, AV is likely to make matters even worse.

In politics, context should never be ignored – and in the current political context any move away from the existing FPTP arrangement is likely to diminish the quality of democratic life. Why? Because the AV system would give party managers an even greater say in who can run for parliament. At least at the moment, now and again a relatively free spirit who has not been parachuted into a constituency by party bosses can become a serious contender for a seat. With AV, however, party managers would have even greater scope to handpick on-message candidates. AV would also boost inter-party horse-trading, leading to a situation where the outcome could be even less representative than it is today. The main argument for opposing AV is to prevent the further expansion of managerial control over public and political life.

Defeating AV in the referendum on Thursday could open the way for a genuine discussion about the nature of political representation. That would create a situation where the principle of democratic representation could become a subject of serious public concern. If at that moment there was a significant interest in PR, that would be all well and good. But that is a discussion that would require active public engagement. Until that point, it is far better to stick with the second-best system than to opt for the worst system of all.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum in June 2011. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics UK

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