Forward to a glorious new era of ‘lukewarm politics’!
The pro-alternative vote lobby is right that AV would help to kill off political extremism - and that is precisely why we should oppose it.
One of the main arguments used by pro-AV campaigners in the run-up to Britain’s referendum on the Alternative Vote in May is that AV will act as a ‘guard against extremism’. Apparently this new voting system will help to keep far-right groups out of power. The upfronting of this line of argument inadvertently reveals a truth about the pro-AV lobby’s preferred system: it encourages bland, agreeable, middle-of-the-road candidates, leaving anyone with strong, powerful or controversial ideas out in the cold.
This became evident during yesterday’s high-profile press conference for the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign. Representatives from various parties, including Labour leader Ed Miliband, Green Party leader Caroline Lucas and Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat president, gathered to express their backing for AV. Farron argued in his opening remarks that the introduction of AV would be problematic for ‘extremist’ voters, because they ‘either vote for extremist nutters or not. They do not tend to transfer their second preferences. I have yet to meet a lukewarm fascist.’
The argument seems to be that since ‘fascism’ is not a dish that can be served cold, then if you introduce a system that will turn the heat down on politics fascists won’t stand a chance of being elected. Yet what Farron doesn’t realise (or maybe he does) is that if you implement an electoral system that gives preference to those who take a lukewarm approach to politics, then anyone who has strong, fiery ideas or beliefs about the way society should be run is more likely to be shut out. It’s not just ‘fascist’ candidates that AV would help to isolate – by its very nature it would also put paid to all forms of hot-blooded, passionate politics, to good ‘extremism’ as well as bad.
Under the AV system, for a candidate to win outright they would need to secure over 50 per cent of the first-preference votes of the electorate. If that doesn’t happen, then voters’ second-, third-, and fourth-preference votes are considered. As has been pointed out previously on spiked, this shift could mean that even voters who clearly prefer one candidate or party over another will be encouraged to express a more relativistic sentiment. Because if they only cast one, first-preference vote, and their preferred candidate fails to secure 50 per cent, then their vote will be discounted. AV encourages you not to put all your eggs into one political basket.
Such a set-up would have a negative impact on the kind of candidates parties put forward for elections in the first place. As spiked editor Brendan O’Neill has argued: ‘Which political party will risk standing a hardcore individual – a deep-blue Tory or a workerist Labourite – when it knows that if its candidate fails to secure 50 per cent of the vote in the first count then the views of other parties’ voters may become key?’
The reason that these concerns don’t seem to bother pro-AV campaigners, the reason they don’t mind the inevitable drift towards lukewarm politics that AV would bring about, is because they consider hardcore political people to be unpalatable. Indeed, it is their desire to water down politics, to bring an end to so-called extremism and tribalism, that motors their support for AV. The Yes to Fairer Votes campaign makes a virtue out of the fact that ‘divisive’ candidates would do badly under AV. After all, who wants potentially irritating politicians who might stir things up? For one academic, AV is a chance not only to ‘raise the barriers to extremism in British politics’ but to ‘kill’ extremism completely. ‘AV will keep extremists out of politics’, says the Yes lobby. AV is ‘a brick wall’ for extremism, they argue.
This pro-AV and anti-extremist line might be presented as a principled opposition to the potential electoral rise of the far-right British National Party. But in truth it reveals the pro-AV camp’s generally problematic attitude towards politics. It speaks to a profound contempt for the electorate, where we are told that extremists can’t possibly be given a level playing field with other candidates, as certain sections of the public might agree passionately with them and get them into power. The public can’t be trusted not to vote for groups like the BNP, so safeguards must be built into the electoral system to protect the easily manipulated masses from themselves and prevent their candidates from getting a foot in the parliamentary door.
Raising the barrier to extremism in politics also means locking out anyone who holds radical views about the transformation of society; anyone whom the parties deem too ‘risky to stand’ in a system in which other people’s votes, the votes of people who don’t naturally support your party, could become the key to victory.
Unsurprisingly, the official anti-AV lobby is just as willing to use the alleged threat of extremism to benefit its campaign. This is summed up in the claims of Tory justice secretary Ken Clarke, who warns that AV could help to ‘bring in highly odd and more extreme people’. The campaign group NO2AV doesn’t go quite that far, but it does claim that AV ‘would certainly give [extremist parties] more influence’.
This debate about how to get rid of ‘extremists’ – whether by instituting AV or rejecting it – captures what is driving the AV debate at the moment: not a principled debate about to increase people’s power over politics, but a fear of loud and passionate political debate and a desire to dampen things down. The pro-AV lobby is right – AV would hamper ‘extremism’, and that is precisely why we should oppose AV. Who wants lukewarm politics? Who wants passionless politicians? Who wants leaders who never say anything dangerous or ‘extreme’? Don’t we have enough of those already?
Throughout history, many views that challenged the status quo – from demands for religious freedom to the campaign for votes for women – were initially denounced by mainstream thinkers as ‘extreme’ and ‘nutty’. Well today, British politics could do with more such extremism and nuttiness, in order to challenge the staid, uninspiring political outlook that is now predominant. The last thing we need is an electoral system that will condemn us to suffer yet more mediocre, middle-of-the-road, edge-free politicos, which is why anyone who cares about the democratic spirit should say No to AV in the referendum on 5 May.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.