Why I’m voting no to AV
I’ve held out from writing a post about the Alternative Vote referendum for a simple reason: electoral reform bores me to the point of tears. I’m far from being alone. Outside of a bubble inhabited by politicos and hacks, very few people have any real interest in the nuts and bolts of our electoral system.
Just because an issue generates widespread apathy doesn’t mean it isn’t important, of course. But I am frustrated about this referendum because it has proved an unwelcome distraction from fighting an aggressively right-wing government determined to take the Thatcherite project to its logical conclusion. I resent the fact we are all spending so much time on a sop thrown by the Tories to the Liberal Democrats in exchange for backing almost their entire domestic policy programme.
It’s also a distraction from the absolute outrage of the Tories gerrymandering the electoral system in their favour, as Nick Brown points out. Worryingly, we all seem to have forgotten about this.
Both the No2AV and Yes2AV camps have waged diabolical campaigns that have cynically manipulated people’s resentment of the political establishment. The amount of bile thrown has been bewildering and speaks volumes about the sorts of people who think that electoral reform is the most pressing issue facing modern Britain.
There are good reasons for me to consider voting ‘Yes’. Being on the left and defending the status quo is always a funny position to find yourself in, and one to be avoided if possible. But being on the left does not – or should not – be about supporting change for the sake of it.
The other reason is far more compelling on an emotional level. The Tories are almost unanimously against the proposed change. Anti-Toryism is almost a gut instinct, inherited both from my socialist extended family and Northern upbringing. The idea of being on the same side of them on any issue makes me deeply uncomfortable, to put it mildly.
But this would be more of a concern if – like New Labour before the financial crash – I found myself on the same side as the Tories on, say, economic policies. A politically diverse range of people can always be found opposed to any given change, but for completely different reasons. Just because the BNP opposed the Iraq War, doesn’t mean I somehow found myself aligned with them.
And then there’s the criticisms of First Past The Post that it’s completely undemocratic because it allows parties elected on a minority of the vote to win a majority of the seats. They have a point: there is something manifestly undemocratic about that.
But no electoral system is truly democratic. Other systems make coalitions more likely, and I don’t think there’s anything partly democratic about them: you end up with governments no-one voted for, often cobbled together behind closed doors. Take Germany – which operates the Mixed Member Proportional Representation system. Not only does it mean that the free-market liberal Free Democrats are always likely to be in government, however low their share of the vote: it also produced the Grand Coalition of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in 2005. Who really voted for that?
There are all sorts of good arguments against the Alternative Vote that undermine its claims to be more democratic: like the fact it can produce results that are even less proportional than First Past The Post. I agree with those criticisms, but it’s not the basis of my opposition.
Above all, I oppose the Alternative Vote because I think it will institutionalise mushy centrist politics. I think that’s exactly the aim of many of its staunchest supporters, because they are (and I hope they don’t take offence to the description) mushy centrists and want an electoral system most likely to ensure their ideology dominates. They are completely entitled to that, but given I’m not a mushy centrist – I’m an unapologetic left-winger who wants a left-wing government – I have every reason for wanting to stop them achieving their aim.
This article by academic Monica Threlfall sets out the reasons why. Above all, the Alternative Vote risks making Liberal Democrats the kingmakers of British politics. It’s not just that it will make coalitions more likely (more on that in a minute). Given both Tory and Labour voters are highly unlikely to second preference the opponents of their respective parties, it will be Liberal Democrat second preferences that everyone will be chasing. A party that – let’s face it – can probably expect to get 15% of the vote tops will become the focal point of our entire political system.
But it is the fact that it makes coalitions with Liberal Democrats so much more likely that particularly concerns me. The hardcore Blairite agenda – the so-called ‘Project’ – was to sever Labour’s union link, merge with the Liberal Democrats and form a new US Democratic-style ‘progressive’ party. Such Blairites always felt that Labour’s split from the Liberals in 1905 was a historic mistake that divided Britain’s ‘progressives’. In his ambition to further the ‘Project’, Blair wanted to bring Liberal Democrats into government after the 1997 general election. He was prevented from doing so by Labour’s landslide victory, and opposition from within the Party.
The Alternative Vote could bring this dream alive again and help cripple Labourism as a political force. A long-term political alliance with the Liberal Democrats would be a permanent counterweight to the trade union link and the party’s left. Bold left policies would be ruled as politically impossible.
It could also be true that the Tories have very little to fear from AV. Those anti-Tory voters who plumped for the Liberal Democrats because they thought Labour was too right-wing have spent the last year kicking themselves. Can anyone envisage them ever making the same mistake again? It means the remaining Liberal Democrats are disproportionately pro-Tory. According to YouGov, Tory and Lib Dem voters are likely to second preference each other as thing stand.
Yes, the Alternative Vote will make Tory majority governments less likely. That’s why the Tories are so opposed to it. But as we’ve seen, the reality is an alliance with the Lib Dems hasn’t prevented them implementing a hard right Tory agenda. The Tory wets put up more of a fight under early Thatcher than the Lib Dems have with Cameron’s lot.
Let’s be clear: the Liberal Democrats want to change the electoral system because of party advantage. The British Liberals only started talking about electoral reform when Labourism purged them as the country’s second party in the 1920s.
And I’ll be completely honest: I oppose a change in electoral system because it will make a left-wing Labour government less likely; it will make undemocratic coalitions with the Liberal Democrats more likely; and it will make Tory-led governments more likely.
If you want to avoid those outcomes, then I urge you to vote against AV.