The AV vote was a fiasco. But then, UK referendums are undemocratic

Much of the blame for the No to AV vote lays with Nick Clegg, Compass and the Electoral Reform Society. But we must also acknowledge the illegitimate and ultimately undemocratic nature of referendums in the UK
Stuart Weir
10 May 2011

Nick Clegg and his party leaders were not wholly to blame for the fiasco of the AV referendum – though, god knows, between them they transformed a ‘miserable little compromise’ into a miserable and huge disaster for their party and for the prospects for democratic progress in the UK.

But the original template for disaster was set by elements of the liberal left elite in Compass, the Electoral Reform Society and elsewhere who, at the tail end of the Brown government, gave up on proportional representation and went for the political fix with No. 10 for a referendum on AV (and not necessarily even with that nod towards popular approval). 

I argued as forcibly as I could at the time that this ‘cunning plan’ was both dishonest and anti-democratic in denying the public a full choice of electoral systems. But they had bought the supposedly realist argument that AV, for all its deficiencies, was the only possible runner among the parties at Westminster and blow the people! And so they failed to get real. Clegg’s first instincts were correct; AV was a miserable little compromise when Labour were advancing it (partly in my view because they saw it as a barrier to PR). It remained a miserable little compromise after the election as well; but he and his colleagues could not resist the Faustian bargain that Cameron offered.

I agree with several of the ideas that have surfaced in the OurKingdom debate on the referendum and where we find ourselves after the No vote. The cause for electoral reform cannot be made in isolation; it has to be part of a democratic surge – and I am afraid that House of Lords reform (as some suggest) isn’t sufficient to carry it.  We also need on the left to rethink a lazy populist faith in referendums. Surely the experience of the last week’s exercise provides us all with sufficient proof that referendums as practised in this country are illegitimate, unsatisfactory and ultimately undemocratic devices.  I write this as someone who once wrote that any major constitutional change should be endorsed by a referendum.  How wrong I was.

Let’s look at the evidence.  The first charge against referendums is that they are almost invariably instruments of the ruling executive and not the popular initiatives that their direct democracy advocates imagine them to be.  The political fix that led to yesterday’s referendum is a blatant example of this maxim.  Thus the two coalition partners – one of which holds FPTP close to its heart (for reasons of political advantage), the other of which believes in proportional representation – offered the people a choice neither of them believed in nor had advocated during the election campaign.  People notice these things. Nor were they willing to offer the people a full choice for electoral reform which would, as Caroline Lucas MP’s failed amendment to the legislation proposed, have placed PR on the agenda.  So we were treated to the shameful spectacle of Liberal Democrat MPs refusing to vote for a proposal that is supposed to be at the heart of their beliefs!

In their rush to judgment, the two parties produced an ill-prepared referendum that was knowingly held on an out-of-date electoral register.  Anthony Barnett’s reading of the informal agreement between Cameron and Clegg may well be correct. Cameron may have seen that the Tories would ultimately benefit from AV on the Lampedusa principle that you must change to preserve what you have – and certainly a two-way electoral deal was on the table. Anyway, the Tories wanted to get their arbitrary proposal for fewer and more equal constituencies – another more immediate benefit - onto the statute book in time for the next general election. To make sure of this, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill also severely restricts public consultation on the boundary changes necessary. Conservative governments are serial offenders when it comes to gerrymandering, but it is disappointing that the Lib Dems agreed to collude with them.

I hardly need remind anyone that the referendum campaign proved to be an absurdly misleading confection of lies, damned lies and bad maths. The No campaign was viciously opportunistic, but the diffident Yes campaign contained its own economies with the truth.  I agree with Anthony Barnett, once more, that they should have gone for a full-blooded denunciation of First Past the Post – but of course they couldn’t.  They were hoist on their own petard. They could hardly damn FPTP without also damning their alternative. Further, because the referendum was rushed, the public were left basically ignorant of the choice on offer. Given that people knew very little about the damaging and disproportionate effects nationally of both systems, the focus on voting at constituency level and the ballot paper – X v 1,2,3 – presented everyone with the most simplistic information from which to frame a judgement. Add to that the deliberate obfuscations of the No campaign and their predictable campaign against Clegg himself and the Yes campaign was a lost cause. 

So referendums are dodgy devices on which democrats should not rely. I suppose it is possible to try and set out proposals for making referendums more deliberative, but it is hard to see how any decent process could steer a neutral or disinterested course through the turbulent rapids of our current party politics and their strident and constant recourse to what the Prime Minister described euphemistically as ‘robust’ debate – i.e., the lowest possible denominators of accuracy and good faith.

But there is also a major flaw in any attempt to make referendums properly representative – and that is that the elector register itself is not at all inclusive. Roughly one in ten people who are eligible to vote – about three million people in all – are not on the register. The missing people are not a random sample: they are primarily young, members of ethnic minorities and students who are more likely to live in (usually Labour voting) inner city areas rather than in the (usually Tory or Lib Dem voting) suburbs and countryside. There is an urgent case for reform here. But if past Labour governments couldn’t be arsed to bring in effective reform, it is most unlikely that the Tories and Lib Dems will act to remedy a situation which disadvantages people in Labour’s heartlands.

What of the future? I tend to agree with Democratic Audit’s briefing paper on the referendum that the arbitrary nature and the deficiencies of FPTP will remain both real and apparent.  (Also that if AV had won, many of these deficiencies would have remained - one of the reasons why I was so angry with the attempted pre-election fix.)  There will still be increasingly excessive majorities and too many safe seats, blocking the multi-party system at Westminster; and rather than votes counting equally, First Past the Post will continue to render voter power “highly uneven”.  And it is surely significant that six of the seven larger parties at the last election opted for some sort of electoral reform – only the Tories didn’t?

They may think that they have kicked electoral reform into the ‘long grass’. They may even have done so (with a little help from our friends). But as the Democratic Audit paper suggests, the case for electoral reform won’t go away as FPTP continues to malfunction - and if people want babies to be born more safely, enough bobbies on the beat and a NHS protected against a reckless competition structure, they may make the connection between unrepresentative and over-powerful government and the voting system that makes it possible.  But we will need a Labour Party and rehabilitated Lib Dems willing and able to make the connection too. 

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