Three reasons why the Yes camp is wrong
The elitist and managerial pro-AV campaign gives a glimpse of what all of politics would be like under AV.
Does anybody actually want the alternative vote (AV), which British people will vote on in a referendum tomorrow? Certainly it had never previously been on the agenda of the Labour leader Ed Miliband, until he decided that a Yes vote might help to bloody the nose of prime minister David Cameron (who is opposed to AV). Even Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg notoriously called AV a ‘miserable little compromise’. Many of the key supporters of AV see it as merely a halfway house to their desired system of proportional representation (PR).
Yet while AV might not be the ultimate goal of many of those campaigning for it, it is a system that is very well suited to them. In three key ways, the pro-AV campaign of the past few months has revealed much about the kind of problematic, degraded, low-horizon politics that would become commonplace under AV.
Firstly, for all its talk of an ‘incredible network of grassroots supporters’ and being ‘a people’s campaign’, in fact the Yes lobby has failed to generate a groundswell of public support for AV. Indeed, the AV referendum is not a product of any public demand for a change to the electoral system; rather it came about as a result of behind-the-scenes horse-trading between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives during their formation of a coalition government in May 2010. Some reports anticipate around a 15 per cent turnout in some parts of Britain for tomorrow’s referendum – an indication of how little this referendum, and the idea of AV itself, has sparked the public imagination.
Under AV, if it is passed and implemented, we should expect much more of this kind of elite manoeuvring and hidden political machinations, since AV implicitly invites deal-making between politicians over and above appeals to the public for support. The preference-vote system would create a situation where aspiring politicians would effectively end up trading in second-preference votes: ‘Get your people to make me their second choice, and I’ll do the same for you.’ Far more than in the current system, there is huge scope for political stitch-ups under AV.
Which leads to the second reason the Yes camp is wrong: it continually underestimates the ability of the public to make up their minds. For all the Yes campaigners’ talk of AV forcing MPs to work harder and to reach out to a wider constituency in order to win a sufficient number of votes, their campaign has often been reluctant to engage with the public in that way. This was demonstrated quite early on, with the Yes camp’s illiberal attempt to get the Advertising Standards Authority to censure the No lobby’s adverts. This rather exposed the Yes campaigners’ contempt for the court of public opinion.
This attitude, this fear of rowdy public engagement, can also be glimpsed in the Yes camp’s argument that the brilliant thing about AV is that it will lock out ‘extremists’. They see AV almost as a safeguard that will help to prevent the public from making the ‘wrong’ choices and electing the ‘wrong’ people. The logic is that in raising the number of votes that a candidate must win to 50 per cent, it will become harder for the ignorant sections of the masses to get their way.
The Yes camp believes that a technocratic fix to the electoral process will reinvigorate politics and re-engage the electorate. Official campaign ads even go as far as to feature war veterans saying: ‘My vote has always been confiscated by the system. For all the say I have ever had, I might as well have died on the Atlantic and Arctic Convoys, or at the D-Day beaches, or later in the Pacific.’ The implication is that if AV is implemented, then the public will begin to find its voice and become a real force on the political stage once again.
However, the truth is that tinkering with the electoral system won’t solve what is a fundamentally political problem: namely, the absence of aspiring ideas to vote for today and the slow erosion of any meaningful relationship between the people and our representatives. In fact, AV would exacerbate these problems, since it is a system that will encourage politicians to compromise on their political beliefs as part of the natural process of appealing for second- and third-preference votes from people who might find your real beliefs objectionable.
Yet far from seeing this process of compromise and watering-down of ideology under AV as a problem, the pro-AV lobby instead believes it is a virtue – which is the third reason why it is wrong.
As the official campaign puts it: ‘AV rewards politicians who can reach out to a widest range of voters. Politicians will need to engage more constructively with more people if they want to be sure of winning.’ But ‘constructive’ engagement for the Yes lobby doesn’t mean a politician winning a battle of ideas – it means politicians being ‘rewarded’ for constructing their policies around a smorgasbord of what they perceive to be the electorate’s diverse views.
The idea that the electoral process should just be a managerial task of trying to reflect a mish-mash of the perceived preferences of the electorate, rather than presenting to the electorate a vision for the future that they could be inspired to get behind, was summed up in a recent pro-AV TV broadcast by historian Dan Snow: he likened voting to a group of friends deciding whether to go to a pub or a coffee shop. But the decision about who we vote for should be forged through reasoned debate and discussion, not the kind of feeling one has when deciding ‘should I have a latte or a beer?’ Again and again, the pro-AV camp dumbs down politics and reduces it to its lowest common denominator.
AV would institutionalise an even more consensual, tepid form of politics. It would encourage parties to stand low-risk candidates rather than anyone with strong views, since overly ideological candidates might polarise opinion and not get sufficient second- and third-preference support. Furthermore, it would encourage the electorate to vote in a new and problematic way. Where voting was once a sometimes passionate stamp of approval for one party and vision, under AV it would become a much hazier, flabbier expression, where we would be invited to say what we think about everyone rather than to say what we want. AV is not just a ‘miserable little compromise’ – it also rewards dirty little compromises, too, by encouraging politicians and the electorate alike to dilute their political passions.
Anyone who believes that politics should not be about making compromises, that there is more to political choice than the choice between a beer or a coffee, and that politicians should stand and fall on a clear set of ideas, should go out on Thursday and say No to AV.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked