In a couple of months we will be taking a vote on the most basic aspect of our democracy – the way in which we elect our government. Yet one could be forgiven, over the past few days, for forgetting that such politically important matters were at stake. First we had the much trumpeted revelation from the no to AV campaign that reform will cost £250 million (!). The figures themselves were rather suspect, but regardless of that, many rightly considered the whole argument to be ridiculous. As one person tweeted “egyptians abandon revolution, decide democracy is too expensive.” The idea that we should keep the same undemocratic voting system simply to save a figure that amounts to less than 0.05 % of annual government spending, is pretty hard to sensibly defend.
At the same time, supporters of AV are also stoically resisting the urge to focus on any important political principals. The headline statement from Nick Clegg yesterday was that FPTP allowed MP’s to abuse the expenses system. ”When a person is corrupt, they should be punished” Clegg said. “When a system makes corruption more likely, it should be changed.” If there were an offline equivalent to Godwin’s Law, it would almost certainly refer to the tendency of all politicians to invoke The Expenses Scandal. Though last year’s revelations were distasteful, they hardly demonstrated a level of corruption sufficient to materially effect our public services, or a form of corruption that would imperil our democracy (i.e. bribes for votes). In the cold light of day the issue seems miniscule compared with mass unemployment, the possible double-dip recession on our door step, or indeed the real democratic deficit inherent in first past the post. Yet expenses have become a kind of lowest common denominator argument that commentators can use in place of politics.
Indeed the idea of democracy has been curiously absent in the campaign for AV. The term barely appears on the website of major pro-av pressure group Take Back Parliament, who instead have chosen the amorphous slogan of “yes to fairer votes” (as though the already vague concept of fairness hasn’t been stretched beyond recognition by the rhetoric of the current government).
This watered down contest might, in part, reflect the political class’ low opinion of the people. Yet more fundamentally, it reflects the nature of the proposals that we are voting on. Unlike the great constitutional reforms of the 19th and early 20th century, and in contrast to proportional representation, there has never been any desire outside parliament for the Alternative Vote. The proposals emerged almost wholly from the Westminster village. And this is because they do not represent the application of an clear principles to our political system. A system that equates the first preferences of some with the least objectionable options of others, and which – on a fairly arbitrary basis – counts the second preferences of some but not others, cannot, unproblematically, wrap itself in the flag of democracy.
Equally the temptation to see AV as a stepping stone to a genuinely proportional system is misplaced. As Andy Newman explains, the AV system is best seen as a variant of of First Past the Post. As Jim Jepps, of the Daily Maybe put it to me, one of the underlying principles of Proportional Representation is that minority opinions ought to be represented in parliament. AV in fact does the polar opposite, ensuring that nobody can be represented unless they win over 50% support in a given constituency.
Indeed, it is difficult to see what great criteria AV meets, aside from introducing a bias towards moderates – who are most likely to be people’s least bad option – and therefore making the electoral system more amenable to the Lib Dems. At the same time, FPTP, a residue of the pre-democratic age, remains fairly indefensible in contemporary political language.
So expect to see more of the rubbish, more arguments about how much money reform will cost, more references to the expenses scandal, more shallow and patronising rhetoric about how “tribal” and dinosaur-like the opponents of AV are. But just remember, it’s not because the people are stupid. It’s because the proposals before us fundamentally miss the point.