The road to self-determination starts with AV

As the date of the AV referendum is confirmed, Anthony Barnett looks back to a speech he made, urging the Durham Union to vote for change.

On 29 October last year the Durham Union debated the following motion: “This House Would Introduce the Alternative Vote”. I introduced the motion and was seconded by Vicky Seddon, the Chair of Unlock Democracy. It was opposed by James Wharton, a new Conservative MP for Stockton South and Iain Wright, the Labour MP for Hartlepool. Vicky and I lost the motion as the Tory students in Durham were mobilised. Next week I will write something about the experience and what kind of arguments go down well, or not. But as 5 May is confirmed as the date of the referendum and today is the start of the real campaign, here is my speech.

This House Would Introduce the Alternative Vote

It is a great honour to open the debate in this distinguished chamber on what is in its own modest way a momentous issue. For this question gains its importance from the likelihood that there will be a referendum on this very question in six months time.

I ask you to consider this. Since the revolutions of the seventeenth century and the harrowing experiences of the Civil War, the ruling class in this country established its power and preserved and reproduced its rule on the basis of two great and abiding principles of government:

First, consent. It pioneered the engineering of popularity well before the advertising industry. It was based on a monarchy that was worshipped; a parliament that was honoured – mocked, yes, but adored; the rule of law anchored by the jury system; a cult of toleration; and the largest territorial empire the world will ever witness.

The finest hour of this domestic system of consent was when all of its competing classes, faiths, nations and parties rallied to Churchill’s Coalition of defiance against Nazism in 1940.

But this popular politics of consent was run by an Establishment of mandarins, aristocrats and gentlemen, whose second principle was to make sure that the unwashed never got their grubby hands actually on the levers of power.

Remember Burke’s defining letter to his electors in Bristol. Once elected it was an MP's responsibility to decide as he felt best whatever his electors might wish. The MPs role was to separate not amalgamate vulgar prejudice from parliamentary policy.

So this coming referendum is a moment to relish. For the first time in our historic polity we, the people, will directly decide an aspect of how we are governed. There have been such referendums in the other nations apart from England, and in London, but never across the UK. There was the referendum over the so-called renegotiated terms of EU membership in 1975, but that was not a real choice as our rulers (including those based in Washington) had decided what they wanted and no money was spared to ensure they got their way.

This time, the choice will be ours.

The immediate reasons for this appallingly dangerous precedent are the expenses scandal of 2009 and the banking and financial crisis that preceded it. They led to a popular revulsion with the political class and its corruption. The result, if I may skip forwards to keep inside fifteen minutes, was a hung parliament and an agreement that there had to be a referendum about something to help ‘restore trust’.

If we were really to have this we should have a referendum about membership of the EU. 

Oh, no! That is much too important to trust us with!

Hey, in England we should be having a referendum about whether we want an English parliament. 

Whoa! The English can’t be trusted with that!

If we are to choose our electoral system we should be allowed the option of proportionality. Our Conservative leaders ruled that out. Because? Well, presumably in case we might prefer it! 

The Prime Minister pledged his support for “Power to People”. This seems to mean that we people are to be given the right to decide, as little as possible.

Except that, and this is what really matters, it will be our choice. Here is the real importance of selecting AV.

We have won the chance to throw out the traditional system of First Past the Post - and by replacing it with AV sending the message that we, the voters, will decide these matters, thank you very much.

So I want you to focus on what we could get rid of.

It is a dishonest voting system and one of the foundations of the dishonesty and hypocrisy of British politics today.

Just one example. In the 2005 general election the Conservative party won the support of 8,784,000 people and won 198 seats. Labour under Blair got 9,552,000 votes, only 800,000 more, but was rewarded with 355 seats. The Lib Dems with nearly 6 million votes got just 62 seats.

After eight years of a living off a world boom, and despite the Tories being led by Michael Howard, the Labour government gained only 35 per cent of the vote. 

It lost the popular election.

But it won a large parliament majority and ruled on its own for 5 more years. 

It is not just that this is not democracy. 

It is mad to pretend that it is. 

Naturally, it produces maddeningly bad government.

‘You know’.

There was a feature of self-belief behind Blair’s disarming style: that he had been chosen to lead, ‘you know’, by God. Well, in 2005 he certainly wasn’t chosen by us!

This was the outcome of a winner-takes-all, first past the post election system. 

It wasn’t always like this. 

But it is now. The Coalition is seeking to impose an arithmetical equalisation of constituency sizes. AV will do much more to ameliorate the imbalances.

But the point is that First Past the Post is a rotten, unfair, dishonest sleaze machine. It is no way to select our representatives. Worse, it humiliates the wisdom and capacity for judgment of the British electorate. It has become a top-down device for ensuring that power is exercised despite what we want.

It has got to go.

We can be self-assured about replacing it.

But we also need a sense of humility and history about what we will be replacing, an attitude often catastrophically lacking in the culture of New Labour. 

The system did once work. But today, what was once a strength that delivered MPs with a Burkian self-belief, has become a system of safe seats, with members whose lack of legitimacy is a permission for executive dictatorship. One run by Downing Street and the media. That is how it was with Blair and how it will be if he can continue it, with Cameron. 

It was not always thus. So I want to take you back in history, for two reasons. I said that I am honoured to speak here, at one of the traditional student union debating chambers, a northern challenge to the hegemony of Oxford and Cambridge.

I want to do everything I can to persuade you to support the motion.

But I fully expect you to refuse AV and stick with the status quo. For, with respect, this mode of debate that emulates the House of Commons is itself reactionary. 

It is not that I am against motions that demand outcomes. I know about the importance of taking clear decisions. But I have also learnt that as important as taking them is the way they are taken, to establish their legitimacy and practical effectiveness.

What works in our time is not ‘winning an argument’ or having ‘strong leadership’ but clear deliberation and the transparent decentralisation of responsibility.

This kind of debate format is the opposite of deliberative. It is just about winning. Voters don’t like it, which is why they find the process of the Coalition attractive and strangely human whatever its policies.

But this parliament-style format wasn’t always so artificially polarising. In the House of Commons debates could be thoughtful, lengthy and relatively well attended. 

Here is a quote from Winston Churchill’s description of Balfour who was Prime Minister from 1902-5 (it comes from his book Great Contemporaries):

“The House of Commons was his world… No minister in charge of a Bill ever worked harder… He never floundered in detail… As Leader it was his custom to wind up almost every important debate himself. He spoke usually for an hour, having perhaps four or five main points jotted down upon two long envelopes.  Within these limits he allowed his thought to flow. Often he paused to choose a word… At such times the assembly joined him sympathetically in the search… Out came the right word, amid loud cheers… This faculty of enlisting the whole audience, both sides alike… was a potent gift…"

This is a description of, yes, a chamber of deliberation now utterly vaporised.

This was the parliament fed by its First Past the Post system that had no time for referendums.

As I say, it wasn’t a democracy but it rested on a profound degree of public consent. The Commons could claim to represent the country, listening to and holding the government if not to ‘account’ in the modern meaning of the word but in its hands. 

It is no longer so. We should salute what it was, but not pretend that this is what it is any longer. And then say a respectful goodbye to its voting system. For today this functions to deliver a different kind of House of Commons. One that is managed and negotiated by the executive. Essential to the smooth running of this system is the weakness of so many MPs, ensured by the way they are chosen.

All the now arid forms of tribalism feed into this dried out eco-system.

Why on earth do they fear AV and cling to First Past the Post?

On the first day of this parliamentary session, I sat in the gallery of the Commons to witness the referendum bill being introduced. It was a listless, forgettable affair. At one point, Margaret Beckett was called. She added her voice to all the Tory ones denouncing AV. If Margaret Thatcher personified a Tory rage for enterprise, Beckett embodies the blinkered vision of the Labour machine and, now, perhaps the single most conservative force in British politics: the Labour backbencher.

She told us how when she went around the world as Foreign Secretary people asked her how the United Kingdom managed to be so far ahead of them in its skilful government and peaceful change. And she told the Commons that her answer was that it was thanks to our electoral system – it was the secret of our unique success.

I know what reformers are up to, she went on to warn, AV is just the “thin end of the wedge”.

Exactly so. That is why I ask this house to support it. A Yes vote will be the simple, modest first step to becoming a modern democracy.

Who opposes the simple beginning of democracy?

What is the amalgam of elite, conservative forces that has combined together to try and prevent it?

It is a choice between them and us. Who are ‘them’?

They are an unholy alliance of smooth Etonians, New Labour shysters, Old Labour pseudo-proletarians, together funded by big business, organised by spin doctors, assisted by mandarins looking forward to corporate jobs, whipped on by the Murdoch press desperate for the exciting smacks of strong government that increase sales.

Given the toxic mix of elitism and corporate populism behind the ‘No’ campaign, how can I even contemplate the possibility of a motion such as this being defeated? Or the referendum campaign itself being lost? Could the British vote to carry on being serfs?

I fear there are all too many examples of people embracing their own subordination.

As you may know, a small campaign to edge towards greater women’s participation has begun in a Kingdom with an unwritten constitution, Saudi Arabia. Naturally the men are fighting back. How? By supporting a campaign of Saudi women demanding “punishment for those who call for equality between men and women”. The campaign’s slogan is: “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me”.

This is the clarion call of the No campaigners supporting Westminster, Whitehall and government as we have always known it, from above.

Can we shake them off?  Since the Iraq war we have known that we are wiser than our political elite. The banking crisis confirmed this.

Of course, if the question was put to us ‘Do we want democracy?’ there would be no doubt about the outcome. Instead we are being offered a teeny weeny grudging choice designed for us to dismiss as unworthy.

But self-determination starts here.

It’s the fact of the choice that matters, more than AV itself. Let us make the voting system our voting system, Ladies and Gentlemen. Let us make how we elect leaders our electoral system, not theirs. Let us make AV the beginning of self-government. 

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy