Jacob is wrong: Why lefties of all stripes should vote yes to AV

This post was written by Owen on April 24, 2011
Posted Under: Democracy

I’m not going to take issue with the title of Jacob’s last post, partly because I’ve been guilty of the odd bit of abusive language myself at times, and partly because I’ve known Jacob long enough to realise that trying to stop him being gratuitously offensive is a bit of a fool’s errand.

What I am going to take issue with, however, is that he’s completely and utterly wrong on the AV referendum. To make things simple, I’ll set out my piece to mirror his, addressing each of the pro-AV arguments he attacks:

Won’t it be wonderful when you can vote for whoever you like without the concern that you’ll let the tories in?”

Jacob dismisses this on the grounds that the personal satisfaction at being able to vote for your minor lefty party of choice (and then presumably put Labour as a second or third preference) is a pretty poor substitute for actual meaningful political change. This would be an entirely reasonable argument, aside from the fact that this is a total straw man. The actual partisan leftwing pro-AV argument here isn’t that you’ll finally be able to feel all warm inside at voting for the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition regardless of whether they get elected or not; it’s that under AV the anti-Tory vote (which, it’s worth pointing out, has been a majority in practically every election for the past hundred years) won’t have to be split any more. That, needless to say, is why the Conservatives oppose it. Of course, what this would in all likelihood mean in the short-to-medium term is more Labour or Labour-led governments, which I’m sure Jacob and many other lefties – including me – would disagree with strongly on various issues. But if you really think that this wouldn’t be an improvement on the Conservatives, I’ve got a few million NHS patients, Minimum Wage recipients and EMA beneficiaries I’d like you to meet.

It will give minority parties a better chance.”

Here Jacob’s argument is that at present leftwing candidates tend to get elected on a minority of the vote in their constituencies, and that under AV this would be less likely to happen. There are two ways of interpreting this. The first is that Jacob thinks that getting leftwing figures into Parliament is more important than having MPs who actually reflect the views of their constituents – in other words, that he gives more priority to having his political views (imperfectly) promoted by MPs than he does to having a House of Commons that’s actually democratically representative. I don’t think this is a position totally without merit, but since it effectively entails arguing that majority opinion is irrelevant, I’m going to be nice and assume that’s not what he’s actually trying to say. The second, more likely interpretation is that while at the moment the radically leftwing candidates who get elected on a minority of the vote probably aren’t that representative of the views of their constituents, at a national level this goes some way to make up for all the radical leftwing voters in other constituencies who have moderate or rightwing MPs. With AV, there’s less scope for this to happen as all candidates will have to appeal to centrist swing voters to get elected.

This is the most convincing anti-AV argument I’ve heard anyone put forward, but the best that can be said for it is that it’s a plausible possibility; it’s simply not possible to know whether this is actually how things are going to work out. It’s interesting to note that Jacob cites two MPs as exceptions to the case he’s trying to argue (Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell) but just one (Caroline Lucas) in support of it. I realise three examples isn’t exactly statistically significant, but one out of three ain’t great when you’re trying to marshal the numbers in support of your case.

The main reason to be dubious of this argument, however, is that it assumes that people vote for candidates solely on the basis of how right- or leftwing they deem them to be. In fact, this isn’t really how things work. There’s a reason the old saying goes ‘all politics is local’, not ‘all politics is interpretable purely on a simple left-right spectrum’. MPs get elected in large part on the basis of how well they deal with the issues their constituents care about, and how well they do this doesn’t necessarily have much to do with how leftwing they might or might not be. There’s no reason why a staunchly leftwing MP can’t also be good at dealing with local issues and listening to the concerns of their constituents – a lot of them manage it at the moment – and if they can’t, do you really want them in the House of Commons anyway regardless of how much Marx they’ve read? Five more years of George Galloway, anyone?

This is the one route to proper proportional representation.”

Again, Jacob’s correct to say that PR isn’t on the cards anytime soon. But it’s a hell of a lot more likely to happen in our lifetimes if AV goes through than if it doesn’t, a point made very well by Sunny at LibCon not long ago:

[T]he left should not lose the stomach for revolutionary change or radical ideas. But it must also have the pragmatism to find ways to push for them, perhaps even incrementally, rather than constantly throw toys out of the pram when change does not go far enough quickly…

…Failure will not breed success. The Conservative party and Taxpayers Alliance funders etc will continue throwing money at keeping FPTP, and next time there will be even less traction to discard FPTP.

I don’t have much to add to Sunny’s arguments here.

It is just inherently fairer and more representative.”

This is effectively the same argument as the one about minority parties above. The same comments apply.

Jacob also ignores one very important reason why a yes to AV matters. I take the point that a yes vote for AV isn’t going to change the political system all that much in itself. What it might well do though, is royally screw over the government. The argument that we should vote no to AV to spite Nick Clegg is horribly misguided, a point that, once again, I’m not the first to make. I’m sure most Marxists won’t want to hear from terrible bourgeois Fabian reformists like Sunder Katwala, but there’s no denying the power of his arguments on this:

[I]t will hardly surprise either [George Osborne's] friends or foes that the big idea is to cut deep enough to build an election war chest so the Tories can run on tax cuts as in the 1980s and 1992. For Osborne, the big prize is reversing their retreat on taxes against spending on public services after 1997. His ideological ambition is that it should be like the Labour years never happened.

For Osborne, keeping the current electoral system forms an important part of this plan. So he has stepped up to the plate in the campaign, though constitutional issues are not usually a major focus for a Chancellor of the Exchequer, particularly when his day job might be thought rather pressing in current conditions.

Osborne has hit the headlines with prominent attacks on the Yes campaign – though the idea that the Electoral Reform Society is backing electoral reform might seem unsurprising to many.

Probably more important has been the behind the scenes encouragement to Tory donors. (“Downing Street channelling cash to the No campaign, as the Telegraph reported) to get stuck in.

The message has been that they should support a No vote now – or expect to have to make bigger donations in future because Osborne and the Tories fear election campaigns would be harder to win under AV.

So, to sum up, there’s a good chance of further-decimated public services and a second wave of Thatcherism if AV fails, but we should vote no anyway in case a couple of members of the Socialist Campaign Group lose their seats? Yeah, you’ll have to forgive me for not being wholly convinced by that.

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Reader Comments


I think I agree with you. The only argument of Jacob’s that seems to hold any water is the one about AV shutting out left-wing representatives even more than FPTP does. But like you, I think there isn’t strong enough data to fully back that conclusion. Even assuming Jacob’s correct, and he might be, it seems the difference is between a few genuinely left-wing MPs under FPTP and fewer genuinely left-wing MPs under AV. Since a Yes vote for AV would be bad for the coalition either way (surely more damaging than a No vote), then I think I’ll vote Yes.

Written By Matt on April 25th, 2011 @ 12:34 am
David Moss

All sound points. I would also note though (as I did in my comments on Jacob’s piece) that the idea that AV would mean the minority of actually-sorta-lefty MPs would lose out is probably entirely wrong. John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn have both won 50% plus of the votes in recent years. In Caroline Lucas’ case, she and Labour have about 30% of the vote each compared to 24% for the Tories. So under FPTP and AV its about equally plausible that she might lose out to Labour, but under FPTP far more likely that the Tories could make up the 6% gap between them and win the constituency, whereas under AV they’d only have 2/5ths of the combined Labour/Green vote (and so be completely out of the race).

Written By David Moss on April 25th, 2011 @ 9:55 am

Thanks to Jacob and Owen for a great service to lefties/progressives pondering which way to vote over AV. Through you, The third Estate has provided the only coherent debate of the issues I have found on the web where opposite conclusions are reached from a shared left wing perspective.

I’ve been a wavering, most likely “yes” voter, on this. I suspect that a “No” vote will cement the current arrangements for decades to come while a “Yes” victory would not make a great deal of difference in the short run but would whet the appetite for more reform, and show that change is possible.

We also should not underestimate the opportunity it gives the left beyond Labour to campaign at elections, knowing that any votes it receives will not let Tories. This dynamic is likely to bring about a growth of left of Labour political formations and will strengthen their ability to organise politically not just around elections but on everyday issues that are more important than elections.

When people no longer have to vote tactically to try to keep the Tories out, the results by AV, both before and after transfers, will give us on the left a much clearer picture of the political attitudes held by the mass of voters, show us where we have the greatest potential to build, and where the biggest challenges are.

Of course the biggest winners in the short term if AV is adopted will be those spineless toerags of the “Liberal” “Democrats”, but in the long run I can see the dynamics it will set in train as being very beneficial to Reds and Greens and Red/Greens.

Written By DavidR on April 26th, 2011 @ 6:02 pm

Something that hasn’t been mentioned much, probably because it’s nowhere near as interesting as the political implications of the referendum vote, is the fact that AV allows the voter to express their political views in a far more detailed way than FPTP (or any ‘one vote’ system – what is the technical term I’m searching for here?).

Most people think about politics in a way that is more in tune with AV than FPTP. Apart from the party hacks running the no campaign (from Cameron on the right to John Reid on the centre-right) nobody really thinks that the Tories or Labour or whoever have all the answers and that everybody else is wrong about everything.

Opinions are more along the lines of “broadly agree with one manifesto, like some aspects of another, while a third would make for at least a tolerable government and a fourth is completely anathema to everything I believe in.”

AV at least enables the voter to express these views. It will make voting a much more sophisticated way of recording opinions than the crude mechanism of FPTP (I suspect this is partly why so many politicians are so in favour of the status quo – they don’t want to hear more clearly what the public has to say). For that reason I’ll be voting yes. Practically I think it will bring a slight benefit to the left, although the voting system is massively less important than influence over the money and the media, and the Tories will always have the edge here either way. But philosophically a preference-based system is clearly superior to FPTP.

Does that make sense?

Written By Luke on April 26th, 2011 @ 11:38 pm

I intend to vote ‘yes’, even though I have no particularly strong feelings about either system (transparent democracy yes, system of voting not really), for the following simple reason. Under AV (according to some person on Radio 4), you are perfectly within your rights to mark only your first preference in protest, and leave other candidates blank, as with FPTP. AV is pro-choice. I like that.

Written By Rupert on April 27th, 2011 @ 10:55 am

Just to say: great article, thank you for writing it. I think you’re right that, concretely, for people feeling the very material difference between even new labour and Thatcherism, keeping the Tories out is far more crucial than getting the odd socialist in. Added to which, eliminating the splitting of the left and voting labour to keep the Tories out might even help more left wing candidates. But I hadn’t articulated those thoughts properly until I read this!

Written By Beccy on May 2nd, 2011 @ 3:04 pm

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