openDemocracyUK

The AV referendum is squalid and degrading - reply to Andy White

Stuart Weir
15 February 2010

An OurKingdom conversation. [History: Stuart Weir > Andy White > this post > Andy White > Stuart Weir]

Andy White doesn’t get it. The crux of my case against the collusion of the Electoral Reform Society in Gordon Brown’s referendum stunt is not the likely response of the Lib Dems in the highly unlikely event that we end up voting in general elections under the Alternative Vote (AV), though I will come back to that. It is far more substantial. Let me spell it out.

Part of the democratic case against referendums in a nation which has no written constitution is that the executive can take advantage of the absence of effective rules to exploit them for purely political ends. That is what Gordon Brown is doing. His allies in Downing Street, the cabinet, the PLP.and Compass make no bones about that. Brown is deliberately offering the public a choice confined only to two electoral systems that deliver disproiportional results. He therefore means to deny the public the choice of a proportional electoral system which would guarantee a properly representative and more independent House of Commons; which would bring to an end the major party duopoly in political power; and which would make possible genuinely pluralist politics in the UK.

I believe that it is dishonourable and unprincipled for organisations that deem themselves democratic not only to accept, but actually to campaign vigorously for, Brown’s profoundly undemocratic manoeuvre. I also believe that it is foolish for several reasons – the first of which is that in doing so the ERS and other organisations in its crusade are actually demoting the case for proportional representation in favour of an absurd beauty contest between two ugly sisters. No matter that AV is more attractive than FPTP - it remains inferior to PR and the more they proclaim its virtues the more difficult it becomes to make the public case for proportional representation.

The second reason is that their participation in this squalid example of the old politics degrades politics in general – together with their own claims to represent something purer and more honest. The third reason is that it is highly unlikely to work, and even if it does, the outcome will do immeasurable damage to the cause for which the ERS was founded. The Conservatives are rightly going to denounce the whole enterprise as dirty tactics (and with it the very idea of electoral reform). If they win the next election, they will kill it dead. If they lose the election, they will continue to campaign vigorously against AV and I wouldn’t bet much on Labour campaigning as hard as they do. But suppose that AV does emerge first from this fixed contest. How does that actually assist the cause of PR, a representative Parliament, a new democratic politics?

In my view, it will set back the cause of PR for several generations. In extolling its superiority over FPTP, those who are backing AV will give it a false legitimacy in a debate limited by the absence of PR from the discussion and will entrench more deeply still the obsolete adherence to a political system based on small constituencies that so damages parliamentary politics in the UK. The idea that the merits of its preferential edge over FPTP will carry over to justify a switch later on to preferential STV elections in much larger multi-member constituencies is more than just foolish, it is delusional, it is fantasy politics. Thank god the ERS’s desperate surge will fail – but what a waste of resources at a moment when the case for PR needs to be made as firmly and comprehensively as possible with PR in the ascendent in the POWER2010 poll!

Oh, and the Lib Dems. Actually I think Chris Huhne is doing pretty well in circumstances which are not of his choosing. I still believe that Brown conceives of his cunning plan as a bribe to the Lib Dems. It may however be that in the unlikely scenario of AV taking the place of FPTP they will not be satisfied (as Andy White argues) with the lesser rewards of AV and will still campaign strongly for PR. But the temptation of places in a future major party cabinet may very well blunt their desire for more parliamentayr seats; and anyway, they have not made much of a fist in their efforts to obtain reform thus far.

By the way, I am not "a natural ally of the reform movement", as White so condescendingly describes me. I have long been part of the campaign for democratic renewal in the UK. That is why I am so disappointed with the ERS’s abandoning both principle and good sense.

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