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Three reasons why the No camp is wrong

The anti-AV lobby has done itself no favours by depicting the electorate as dumb and easily befuddled.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

Topics Politics UK

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There are plenty of good reasons to vote No to the alternative vote (AV) in Thursday’s referendum in the UK. Indeed, as spiked has pointed out previously, there are plenty of principled, pro-democracy reasons to vote No to AV.

However, you could be forgiven for not realising this, such has been the political and moral wasteland of the official No campaigns of the Conservative Party and cross-party campaign group NO2AV. If the ‘Yes to fairer votes’ campaign has been at best insipid and at worst craven, then the No campaign has matched it all the way for crass opportunism and easy cynicism. It has been a truly depressing spectacle. Given every opportunity to elevate a discussion in which BNP fearmongering and expenses-fuelled MP-bashing has been all too apparent, the No lobby has opted to keep it firmly in the gutter instead.

A quick look at three main reasons being given for opposing AV illustrates the paucity of the ideas behind the official No campaign. Principal among these is the idea that instituting AV will be too expensive. Apparently, switching voting systems from first-past-the-post (FPTP) to the alternative vote will cost the state something in the region of £250million. Clearly believing that the best way to appeal to citizens is to view them as little more than taxpayers, the No campaign has been tugging remorselessly on our wallet strings. ‘She needs a new cardiac facility not an alternative voting system’, yelled one poster featuring a prematurely born baby in an incubator. ‘He needs a bulletproof vest not an alternative voting system’, another poster claimed, this one with a picture of a British soldier. Prime minister David Cameron, quick to add his own take on this ingenious riff, declared that money could be ‘better spent on our public services than on our political system’.

Upset by the suggestion that it was campaigning for more dead babies and more dead soldiers, the Yes campaign claimed that the £250million figure was made up. We won’t need £130million worth of electronic vote-counting machines, activists claimed, and ‘voter education’ won’t cost £26million, and so on.

But the problem with the ‘too expensive’ jibes is not their accuracy (or lack of it). Rather, the problem is that democracy is not something to be costed as if it were just another thing on the state’s balance sheet. Regardless of what one thinks of AV, or indeed of FPTP, to suggest that ‘price’ should determine how we elect our government is to give up on the moral case for democracy. It is to make an economic case for democracy instead, which, when it involves the fundamental freedoms of members of society, is no case at all. Because as soon as you start to talk about electoral reform costing too much, the idea of democracy becomes cheapened. After all, according to the NO2AV logic, the state could save more babies and launch more military interventions if we just got rid of elections tout court.

If the crude anti-democratic accountancy-focus of the No lobby’s case wasn’t bad enough, it has also seen fit to spice it up with a bit of backslapping nationalism. ‘Only three countries actually use AV – Fiji, Australia and Papua New Guinea’, the No campaigners never cease to remind people, as if the mere mention of such backward nations and one ex-British colony is enough to put voters off.

To ram the point home, ex-Labour minister John Reid called FPTP ‘a system that has been the foundation of our democracy for generations’: ‘That is the British way, it is the fairest way, and it is the best way.’ What on Earth is he on about? The ‘British way’? It might come as a shock to patriotic Reid, but there is nothing distinctly British about democracy. Monarchic absolutism was once pretty popular in Britain, too, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone defending ‘one unelected king, one inherited rule’ as the ‘English way’.

And then there’s the real No-shaped arrow to the heart of the pro-AV campaign: apparently this system is just too darn complicated for us, the simple-minded electorate, to figure out. Under FPTP, its half-arsed advocates rightly assert, the person with the most votes wins. But under AV things are not quite so clear-cut. In fact, if you were to believe AV’s official critics, it will confound and befuddle the electorate to the point where our tiny brains will boil away under the pressure of having to unravel a voting procedure which that might as well be quantum mechanics. The thing is, AV is not that complicated. Other countries use it without, as far as I know, mass mental breakdowns. And here in Britain Lord Reid’s very own Labour Party uses AV to elect its leaders.

The constant harping on about just how complicated is the ranking candidates in order of preference (see, it’s not brain surgery) tells us less about AV and more about the No lobby’s condescending view of the electorate. They think we’re so thick that an electoral system that is about as complicated as tying shoelaces will leave us with our fingers in our ears, crying ‘I just don’t understand it!’.

But there is another way to say ‘no’ to AV. One doesn’t have to oppose AV on the spurious grounds of nationhood, back-of-a-fag-packet economics, or the electorate’s stupidity. Instead one can oppose AV because it will reinforce the most retrograde of current political trends, giving an isolated political elite a sense of legitimacy it does not deserve. Furthermore, AV will further dilute what is left of political contestation, reducing canvassing to an attempt on the part of prospective MPs not to upset as wider proportion of the constituency as possible. And finally, the whole idea of AV confuses active, passionate support for a particular political vision with acquiescence to the election of any political vision going.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked

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Topics Politics UK

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