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.