Have we ended up with AV-style politics anyway?
Despite the crushing of the Alternative Vote in the referendum, the UK elections confirmed the strength of the anti-political trends AV embodies.
As the result of the UK’s referendum on the Alternative Vote system became clear on Friday, one leading member of the ‘Yes’ campaign sought to explain why their proposal for electoral reform had suffered such a humiliating defeat (by more than two to one): ‘We were providing a solution to a problem the British public did not recognise.’
This revealing admission sums up the dire state, not just of the AV campaign, but of the entire British political system, as confirmed by last week’s elections to English local councils, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. Britain’s first national referendum in 36 years was organised on an issue that nobody cares about. Our leading politicians are obsessed with matters which voters do not even see as problems, never mind endorsing their ‘solutions’. The political elite is operating in a world of its own, thinking up little schemes and shrilly debating issues that barely touch on the concerns of normal people. Politics has become something alien and external to the lives of the people it is supposed to represent.
Against this background, the recent results reveal a situation in which no political party has any real connection with a large constituency or deep roots in society. There is no dynamic behind any national party.
The headlines have been about the wiping out of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, junior partners in the coalition government, who recorded their worst national results since being formed in the late 1980s. That, however, should hardly have been a shock. After all, the party owed its past rise in the polls to its status as the all-purpose recipient of protest votes, an empty vessel into which people could pour their various discontents with the major parties, in many ways the anti-politics party. Little wonder that when such a party joins a government with the Tories and accepts policies its voters were protesting about, its support can collapse overnight. It only confirms the shallowness of the Lib Dems’ appeal, that they can disappear from large parts of the political map as quickly as they emerged, and with equally little effect.
More striking perhaps was what happened to the two major parties last week. With the collapse of the Lib Dem vote there has been talk, especially among Labour Party politicians, of a return to more traditional two-party politics in Britain. That superficial assessment misses the point that neither Labour nor the Conservatives are what they were in that era; both are shadows of their former selves.
Labour claimed some gains in the elections in England, which was almost inevitable given how badly they did in such local elections when New Labour was in power under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and in the Welsh Assembly. But there was little sign of the sort of national momentum or major breakthrough that Labour had hoped for and some dreamers in the media had expected. Most importantly, Labour was drubbed in its erstwhile stronghold of Scotland, the one place it has been able to rely upon for solid support in recent times. That remarkable setback suggests that any Labour revival under Ed Miliband is over before it has begun. As for prime minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, so shaky is their support today that Tory commentators were able to celebrate as ‘fantastic’ the fact that they more or less stood still last week and did not suffer the major losses predicted. The Tories owe their survival entirely to the pathetic state of the opposition.
Talk of a return to traditional two-party politics is entirely misplaced – neither Labour nor the Tories represents the national force with deep political roots and a solid core constituency that they once did. Both are empty shells, creatures of today’s isolated political elite rather than popular movements. The one party that can perhaps claim to have made real gains last week is the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), which won an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament. Yet in its own way, that too looks more a symptom of the decay of the old political order rather than the emergence of a meaningful new politics. It has been widely remarked that the SNP victory was largely down to the personal appeal of its leader, Alex Salmond. That personality plays such a large part in politics today is testament to the lack of substantial political alternatives being debated – and that such a ‘personality’ as Salmond can triumph confirms the dearth of charismatic leaders on offer. The SNP’s advance looks more a side-effect of the death of Labourism, with that party’s desperate failure to cash in on anti-Tory sentiment, than any dynamic political change in itself.
The AV referendum result also symbolised the core of the political problem behind last week’s election results. As previously discussed on spiked, there were no principled arguments in the referendum in the campaign, instead all sides were based on self-serving opportunism. Who really believed in AV? Even its leading supporters admitted it was a ‘miserable little compromise’. In the end, the vote was overwhelmingly and unsurprisingly a negative one against AV – not a positive endorsement of the wonders of the existing first past the post electoral system.
That captured a wider truth about political life today. Nobody in British politics stands for any principle, there is no clash of ideas between competing views of how society should be organised. As a consequence, all campaigns are negative attacks on the other side (as in the AV referendum) and almost all votes cast are effectively negative ones. People have to vote against somebody rather than for something they can believe in. It becomes a case of deciding who you hate the most – the Tories, or maybe Nick Clegg. That is not a meaningful political choice. (The fact that Ed Miliband cannot even inspire hatred is however a fair sign of how little impact he is making.)
Indeed looking at the outcome of last week’s election, it is worth posing the question: AV might have been defeated, and a good thing too, but have we ended up well down the road to AV-style politics anyway?
In the run-up to the referendum, spiked pointed out the problems with AV and the ways in which the Alternative Vote system could make political life in the UK even less inspiring than it has been of late. In technical terms, it would mean listing candidates in order of preference, with your second preference vote being counted once your first had been defeated, until one candidate could claim more than 50 per cent of the total votes cast. In political terms, it would reduce our democratic choice to making a list of candidates in order of which we disliked the least. It would encourage parties and politicians to appeal to as wide a body of second- and third-preference voters as possible, thus blanding out their message further still and removing any notion of a party based on a distinctive interest group or ideology in society. And before and after elections, AV would put more power in the hands of the deal makers and the elitist committee men/women, and remove it further from demos, the people.
Sound familiar at all? AV would undoubtedly have made all of these trends far worse. Yet despite its defeat, they are evident in our political life. Politics stands revealed as an ideology-free zone where the poverty of ideas and vision means debate is reduced to a row between alternative schools of austerity; where all party leaders attempt to appeal to a (largely imaginary) middle-class constituency by avoiding anything that might prove ‘offensive’ outside of a narrow band of conformist policies; and where very few voters feel any strong sense of attachment or loyalty to any party, or care what happens to their leaders.
The Liberal Democrats might have been wiped out in the elections last week. But did the Lib Dem school of anti-politics clean up after all?
The isolation of the political elite from the life of people in Britain was made clear in the Lib-Con coalition government’s response to the elections and referendum. Now those inconveniences were out of the way, they announced, the government would ‘get back to business’ for the next four years and carry on with its austerity politics, as if nothing had happened and all was well. No doubt Clegg and the Lib Dems will make a few more PR-conscious criticisms of the Tories to try to regain favour with the Guardian crowd. But essentially the message is that electorate should go away and leave the elite to get on with governing. A coalition government that nobody voted for at last year’s General Election retreats behind the Westminster drawbridge of its five-year parliament and tries to carry on as if it had authority over people who might as well live on another planet, coming up with ‘solutions’ to ‘problems’ that ‘the British people do not recognise’.
Well, here is a problem that the British political elite does not recognise: the Alternative Vote might be dead – but where are any Alternative Politics worth voting for?
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.