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The AV referendum - four possible outcomes

With the Coalition government rushing forward while simultaneously seeking to preserve and contain, what matters is not just whether there is a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ vote in the AV referendum, but also the way in which the outcome comes about.
Anthony Barnett
2 August 2010

The following are the notes I worked up after a talk I was invited to give yesterday to the garden party of the Hackney Liberal Democrats. I hope to develop the idea that there are four potential outcomes of the Referendum and I’ll do a short post on some of the discussion that followed.  This is also an early contribution to OK’s new section, Referendum Plus.

I am happy to speak to this Liberal Democrat garden party today and I am going to do so in a direct, non-partisan fashion. Arsenal is playing a friendly with Celtic down the road. In a fortnight the real season begins. By the time it ends, the shape of British politics may be transformed; including perhaps how friendly Westminster is to Scotland.

At the heart of the change is the referendum on the voting system, proposed for 5 May. It is hard to exaggerate both its potential significance, as the public directly decides an aspect of how we are ruled, and the huge effort that will be made to limit, constrain, and block off that significance to try and make sure having people decide policy directly comes to be experienced as an expensive, pointless circus (thus ensuring the political elite retains its monopoly).

I have been asked to talk about the referendum and the purple people movement to ‘Take Back Parliament’ as we look forward to the ‘Yes’ campaign. Let’s leave how any campaign should be taken forward to the discussion.

I want to talk about the political context. We are in a moment of uncertainty. People are interested (are they?) partly because they are not sure what to make of the Coalition or indeed the referendum. Rather than give a campaigning speech in this context I’d like to encourage a conversation to explore what is happening.

There are three things that need to be said about the coalition and its larger significance for the UK.

1. Its chief architect is David Cameron. Nick Clegg is getting most of the flack but, even though he is a bold co-architect, it is not a relationship of equals. On balance he is the follower not the leader of the Coalition. Now Cameron has a clear double-project. He wants to continue as Prime Minister for as long as possible at the head of a ruling Conservative Party, refashioned to be attractive not toxic for voters as a whole, and for the many significant minorities. He’d like this liberal conservatism to give him majority party rule, with his political culture and not Tebbit’s predominating. Cameron has, therefore, both a party and a national governing strategy. They give him a Coalition exit strategy, with the Tories transformed in their inner spirit and outer appeal. It could be before or after the next election, but he has already called for an “electoral truce” between Lib Dems and Tories in 2015 in his recent interview in the Mail.

2.  Economically what matters are not the cuts. The British public has a masochistic respect for pain and domination (hence its putting up with winner-takes-all elections!). It’s the pay back. Thatcher had North Sea Oil, give-away council house ownership, a successful war, and even then her proportion of the popular vote went down in 1983 from 1979. The Coalition can’t get pay-back unless there is economic growth. The economic experts I respect say there might have been growth under Darling’s strategy and there most likely will not be growth under Osborne’s.  We will see. We may be seeing by May next year.

3 Quite separate – though woven in with economic policy – is the fundamental issue of honesty. There is now a deep disenchantment with the political elite. It is different in kind from the friendly, if biting, cynicism and satirical contempt for politicians that marked British life and was an expression of affection. This is now changing, perhaps irrevocably, into the dominant feeling that ‘they’ are loathsome and enjoy an undemocratic racket.  A number of tributaries flow into this river. The nature of the EU and the bad faith of politicians who deny the degree of its sovereignty; the Iraq war, both the lies and the betrayal of our fighting traditions; the bankers romp and the double-standards of the bonus-takers being given public subsidies; the influence of Rupert Murdoch and corporate power; the evasiveness of policy towards England. To switch metaphors from wet to dry: the Parliamentary expenses crisis was the spark that lit a fire that was fuelled by this long and more important list. It did so because it revealed a culture of permissiveness and entitlement amongst those who we elected to protect us from misrule. What this means is that the issue of ‘honesty’ has become much more than a matter of ‘rotten apples’: it has become a gut issue of legitimacy.

These three factors come together in the Coalition’s emergency budget. This was presented as “fair” and “progressive”. But what if after January, as VAT rises to 20 per cent, it becomes clear that the bottom 5 or 10 per cent are paying more, proportionally, than the top 5 or 10 per cent of earners? Even if there is growth and the cuts are not as bad as are being touted, it may not be forgiven. For once again the justification for a defining issue would have been untrue. Like WMD and Iraq. The Iraq war was wrong and misconceived, of course, irrespective of WMD. But the lies made the mistake unforgivable because by revealing bad faith on a central issue ‘trust’ was shattered. Similarly, whether or not the economic and political policy behind the budget is woefully misconceived, the question of whether it was also fair and “progressive” can be judged on its own terms. If people come to see that there was a dishonest justification for a budget that set the financial framework for the next five years, this will reproduce and reinforce the larger crisis of legitimacy threatening Westminster and Whitehall.

I suspect that fear of this crisis of legitimacy is one of the drivers behind the rush to far-reaching measures that marks the coalition. On Saturday Francis Maude strongly criticised both Thatcher and Blair for “not pushing ahead vigorously enough, and quickly enough, in terms of reform”.  On the face of it, it is rather odd. Why should a Conservative government feel it has to judge its success on its being ever more radical? Being ‘tough’ about financial integrity and ‘the nation’s budget’ is one thing. Why the urge to reform everything else?

There is a good reason as well as a bad one. The good reason is that the British state has indeed been bloated with consultancy fees, IT schemes, overpaid senior civil servants, and an expansion of Whitehall fed by New Labour’s statism, a special variant that used the state to subsidise commercial interests. This linked to the intrusive culture of surveillance, incarceration, and building a national network of identity checks and controls summed up by the phrase “database state”.

The Coalition has brought about a swift change in the culture of state power: less intrusive and controlling, respectful of liberty as well as less costly, which is undoubtedly more progressive than New Labour’s. It is very welcome indeed.

But there is also a downside to the rush to radicalism. The politicians know that the change we really want is to change them: the political class. They know that we’d like to get rid of their form of government and replace it with a democracy. To head off this demand they feel the need to stand before us and say, “We are delivering change”. If I am right, this is one reason why a conservative administration is now obsessed with change. It’s the price they have to pay to conserve themselves - and a British system that gives them and their friends their privileges. There is in this sense a reactionary side to their urge for change.

This is the fraught context of the referendum,  whose swift implementation is part of the hasty radicalism of the Coalition.

Now why do we need a referendum on our voting system? A foundation stone of the peculiar form of British dishonesty is our dishonest elections. The present system is defended because its crude simplicity allows us to “kick the rascals out”. But we can never clean up power in Westminster and Whitehall until we have cleaned up how we “vote the rascals in”.

It is therefore very important to link the campaign for a Yes vote on the AV referendum to the profound need for more honest politics.

The problem is that what is on offer is compromised. I’m not against coalitions or coalition agreements, especially when one can say ‘this policy comes from this party and that one from the other’. In this case, however, the referendum is internally compromised. A referendum that gives ‘the people the power’ to choose, as both Clegg and Cameron have claimed (recall the exceptional need for fundamental honesty), would give the people a choice that included a PR system, whether or not people voted for it. But here we see that the Tories would not allow this choice to be put to the people and the Lib Dems are collaborating with this lack of trust.

Because of all this, with the Coalition rushing forward while simultaneously seeking to preserve and contain, what is going to matter is not just whether there is a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ but also the way in which the outcome comes about. This means we now face four possible outcomes. The four are:

1. A resounding ‘no’ in which a majority of the whole electorate support the status quo. Like serfs voting for their masters to have good whips the public backs ‘strong government’ and safe seats and winner-takes-all-politics. This will confirm the allegiance of the people to the current regime and crush hope of reform.

2. A weak ‘yes’ in which after much hoo-ha AV is embraced with a sigh of relief that resounds though the land and the thought of needing to ‘do it again’ produces a shudder. A great effort will have produced something as close as possible to what we have. It will thereby become a “typically British” partial adaptation, the function of which is to head off the real changes we need.

Both these alternatives are fundamentally conservative.

3. Or we could have a ‘no’ vote on a derisory turnout, with many spoilt ballot papers, amidst a mixture of contempt, derision and a feeling that it is a con. In this case a ‘No’ accompanied by widespread exposure of the broken nature of the British state will deepen the demand for change not take it off the agenda.

4. Or we could have a powerful ‘yes’ vote consciously campaigned for as a good in itself by people who open admit it is the thin edge of the wedge, a first step in a reform movement that aims to replace the now unfair and dishonest ‘sovereignty of parliament’ with a democratic constitutional settlement.

The latter describes my stand. But irrespective of whether you share it, I think that we have to be honest about our aims and intentions because the public is smelling rats. It does not want to be misled.

You may recall the verbal twist that started on posters carried by demonstrators opposing the Iraq War and ended up on the cover of the Economist. By switching the position of two letters in his name, Blair became Bliar.

To be a Bliar means to mislead by claiming to be sincere. It is a repugnant blend – smoothie to the lips and toxic to the stomach. The danger the Coalition, and especially Nick Clegg, runs at the moment is being tainted as Bliars when it comes to the central claim that they are turning power upside down (Cameron on Big Society) and giving people power (Clegg).

We must make sure that as popular advocates of the ‘Yes’ campaign we are not contaminated as Bliars. When it comes to democratic principles we need to be honest or there is no point in winning.

Read more about the AV referendum in OurKingdom's Referendum Plus section.

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