Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Case Against AV

Warning: posting possibly only of interest to UK readers!

There is coming up on the 5th May only the second referendum in recent times here. The last was held in 1975 on the issue of membership of the EU or "Common Market" as it was generally known then and, as in that case, so in the present one concerning the voting system for Westminster elections, the fact that there is a referendum at all is due to political circumstances of a peculiar sort. Back in the 1970s there was a lot of pressure for the referendum as it helped the governing Labour Party to face both ways on the issue at hand. Now the referendum on the voting system has come about as the price the Liberal Democrats extracted for forming a coalition with the Conservatives. In return the Liberals have "compromised" on a great deal as readers are doubtless aware.

In deciding on the way to vote in this ignobly produced referendum there are two major questions at stake. One concerns the effect of the result on the governing coalition and the other concerns the question of whether there is a genuine issue of principle at stake here that is worthy of a principled commitment. Some people, particularly those in the camp campaigning for a "yes" vote, have attempted to downplay the significance of the first question in order to concentrate on the second. This attempt is doomed to failure given the unpopularity of the coalition government. However, what divides opponents of the coalition when thinking about this question is what result would damage it more and this division is connected to how one understands the character of this government.

Essentially supporters of a "yes" vote have taken the view that the government is, in the terminology of the leadership of the Labour Party, a "Tory-led" government and that the main enemies are the Conservative Party, essentially leaving open possible future alliances with the Liberal Democrats. These considerations are assisted by a general agreement in principle on the part of the Labour leadership with the Liberal Democrats concerning the merits of changing the voting system. This is not a new kind of agreement either since the last Labour government had, as a major piece of its legislative programme, a commitment to constitutional reform that included the ending of hereditary peerages in the House of Lords, the creation of a new Supreme Court and devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales, all matters on which there was agreement with the Liberal Democrats. When Labour came to power in 1997 there was a substantial increase in the representation of Liberal Democrats as well and the two, even at this date, shared a commitment to electoral reform, culminating in the establishment of a commission chaired by Lord Jenkins on the question. Labour in government however never advanced the agenda of electoral reform for reasons to do with their own internal politics.

So the first question to be addressed is why it is that there is such a general agreement between the Labour and Liberal Democrat leadership on this issue and why it has extended to the AV referendum debate? The basic core of the agreement is a shared commitment to the view that reform of political processes and constitutional niceties will increase the potential for enhanced democratic engagement in the country. During the campaign thus far the "yes" team have stretched this further declaring that the introduction of AV will "end" safe seats and put greater pressure on members of parliament to be more responsive to their constituents. These are partly factual and partly evaluative claims.

As factual claims there is little to support them. The proportion of seats that will be deemed "safe" is not generally thought likely to change a great deal. The claim concerning the increased pressure that will be placed on members of parliament by the introduction of AV is more of an evaluative than factual claim since it is hardly capable of factual assessment. The evaluative claim is, however, bound up with two other views, one of which is factual and surely wrong. These two other views are: a) that AV will help to produce more proportional outcomes and b) that it will be "better" for politics if representatives of the parties have to speak to a broader segment of the population than their "core" voters.

Looking at these two claims, the first is a factual claim and is simply wrong. There is nothing inherently proportional about AV as a system. As Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party, put it during the coalition negotiations last year, AV is in many respects "less proportional" than the current voting system in the UK, a claim that is understood by those who point to the fact that in cases of large majorities produced by one party, AV would have the distorting effect of increasing these majorities. This much was admitted by Chris Huhne, currently a Cabinet minister in the coalition, prior to the last election. The negotiations that set up the coalition never involved the Conservatives or Labour offering a proportional system so the Liberal Democrats got, in return for jettisoning large parts of their election manifesto, a commitment for a referendum on a system that is effectively no more proportional in its results than the current voting system.

If the factual claim concerning the effect of AV on members of parliament is bogus then what of the evaluative one? The core of this concerns the fact that it will be of interest to politicians to reach out beyond their core vote and try to win over voters from beyond their base thus ensuring that politicians will, apparently, be more amenable to compromise and more careful solutions. This is effectively the basis of alliance that exists in terms of political reform between the Labour leadership and the Liberal Democrats. The Labour leadership remains embarrassed by the attitudes of many of its voters and, although in 1997 in particular it was able to reach out to a large enough part of the electorate to take power after winning a large majority, it soon enough angered sufficient of them to govern from 2001 to 2010 in such a way that it lost both total vote share and its proportion of the electorate in every election thereafter.

There is a single basic reason why Labour reached the situation it did of progressively losing its hold on the electorate and eventually losing power. This is that it does not stand for anything that is particularly distinctive. The policies it pursued during its years in office were, as is usually the case, a mixed bag. However, what consistently alienated sections of the voting public were its basic tone-deafness on civil liberties, its lack of responsiveness to democratic pressure (as was signally evident in the case of the second Gulf War), its basically technocratic approach to politics and its deregulatory policies with regard to the financial system that contributed in their own way to the melt-down that occurred in 2008.

The general basis of this failure could be said to be grounded in the inherent resistance of the Labour Party to democracy. It is far from alone in this. The Conservatives have no more interest in democracy than Labour though they also rarely pretend otherwise. The whole "Big Society" nonsense of the current leadership is a way of stating that state money will in future be shared between a wider range of providers who will be expected to offer comparative advantages for such largesse to be distributed. It is not, and is not intended to be, about increased participation in decisions or even wider consultation concerning them.

This leaves the position of the Liberal Democrats. Officially they were committed to a proportional system but have settled for this non-proportional one as an outcome that they argue will unsettle the other major parties. Any hope anyone had, prior to the last election, in the ability of the Liberal Democrats to unsettle the major parties and produce more democratic involvement in politics is now surely gone. Their shabby deals, betrayal of principles and casual dismissal of large parts of their own electorate indicates the kinds of "compromises" they think would be part of any real "new politics". It is as shabby and unrepresentative as what is on offer from the major parties.

Given this situation what the debate about AV masks is the real democratic challenge. This is how to ensure that parties come into existence that are not, more or less in advance, merely representatives of different wings of the current plutocracy. Change in the voting system will make no difference to this one way or the other and is purely a technocratic solution to a deep problem. The Labour leadership and the Liberal Democrats are united in their commitment to such a covering over of the real democratic problem whilst the Conservatives have no interest in even bothering with it.

Returning to the considerations with which I opened the posting: it should be apparent that there is little to support the view that there is a principled issue at stake in the AV referendum. Supporters of the switch try to dismiss this argument, suggesting that whilst AV is not the system they would have chosen that it is better than the present one but I see little by way of evidence for this claim if it is viewed as factual and plenty to stand against it if it is viewed as an evaluative claim. Given this situation the more short-term question of the effect of the outcome on the coalition government seems to me of some importance.

In regard to this effect the question becomes which wing of the coalition one takes to be more reprehensible. Traditional Labour supporters tend to unequivocally believe that this is the Tories and so hope that a "yes" vote will harm Cameron. Possibly such an outcome would hurt Cameron but it would strengthen Clegg and his Liberal Democrats. "Yes" supporters claim that Clegg and the Liberal Democrats are already discredited. However the mandate to change the voting system would give them a solid basis to believe they had brought about a serious change to the constitution. This would reinvigorate the party that brought us a tripling of tuition fees, the abolition of the teaching grant to arts, humanities and social sciences in the universities, the scrapping of the educational maintenance allowance and a program of cuts across the UK. Yes, it was the Liberal Democrats who brought us all this as none of it could have been achieved without them. Further, they betrayed the prospect for political renewal they appeared to represent at the last election. There is also nothing inherently conservative about the present government as has been recognised by most commentators. In fact there are grounds for claiming that, economically, it is "led" by the liberals in the Cabinet of both parties. These factors put together, alongside the flaws in the argument suggesting there is anything especially useful in moving to AV, suggest to me a basic case for a "no" vote on the 5th May.


Jonathan Webber said...

This is very interesting. But could you say more about why AV is no more proportional than FPTP? It seems a surprising claim, given that AV takes more data about voter preferences into consideration. 

Also, why does the question of the effect of the outcome on the coalition government become the question of which wing of the coalition one takes to be more reprehensible? Why doesn't it become the question of which referendum outcome will be most damaging to the coalition in terms of its survival and in terms of either party's likelihood of forming the next government?

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for this comment Jonathan. Taking your points in turn:
1) The claim that AV is not more proportional than FTFP isn't mine alone. As you'll see if you follow the two links from this posting others (including Chris Huhne) agree. The effect of taking more data into consideration is basically to increase the size of majorities thus diminishing the scope of other parties so, contrary to the claims of the "No" campaign, I don't think it would be likely to advance the causes of small parties but would rather reduce them.
2) The two ways of approaching the coalition you mention are distinct it is true though in practice I wouldn't really separate them much. I do think the conduct of the Liberal Democrats has been consistently more reprehensible and do think that is an important criteria in terms of who you might want to take most account of. In relation to the other two questions though there are, I think, similar results. What damages the coalition's survival is whatever makes it a less viable option for the Liberal Democrats and, in my view, all effort should be placed on fracturing them and breaking them from the government. The likelihood of forming another government is a tricky one. At present it remains unlikely that the Conservatives are strong enough to govern alone so if the Liberal Democrats are significantly weakened then the prospects of a progressive government do, in my view, increase but this one is, as I said, a tricky one to think through.

Jonathan Webber said...

Thanks for your reply. But I'm concerned that point (1) might just turn out to be that the result is not proportionate to people's first preferences, which would raise the question: why should it be?

On point 2, I wish I were confident that the Tories wouldn't win an election in autumn 2011, but I'm not. They currently have far more money than anyone else and if Cameron succeeds in defeating AV he will be more popular than ever among his own party and core target voters.

For what it's worth, my own view is that the perfidy of the Lib Dems is symptomatic of a deeper problem: that once an election is over, the leaders of parties are driving and the rest of their party members are locked in the boot. I also think AV will fix this, which would be bad news for Clegg and any wannabe Clegg of the future. Full story here: http://www.jonathanwebber.co.uk/av.html

Gary Banham said...

Thanks again Jonathan: but no point (1) wasn't just a point about first preferences. The lack of proportionality is increased by AV since majorities increase due to the addition of second preferences to first, dwarfing more than under FTFP minority choices. If a more proportionately representative system is what you want you won't get it under AV. As for the Tories winning in autumn 2011 I very much doubt there will be an election then. Unlike most opponents of the coalition I can see it running a full term and beyond even if the alliance between Tories and Lib Dems is allowed to stabilise. Thanks for the link to your posting but I think it states an argument we have had out elsewhere.