"For the Sake of Simplicity": hypocrisy at the service of AV

It is one thing to offer the country a compromise, but the way Britain's Coalition government is going about reform is itself compromised as gruesomely displayed in the demoralising Commons debate on the AV referendum
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
9 September 2010

As Guy has reported, he and I witnessed the opening hours of Monday's Commons debate on the Second Reading of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which is the legislation for AV and the reshaping the constituencies.

It was a down-casting experience. So much so I didn't want to write about it. I don't agree with Labour List that the  AV referendum is "doomed". It does not involve spending any money and it can be seen as an attack on the status quo, on a dishonest voting system, which should be popular. Now Neal Lawson has set out a strong case (opens pdf) in a Compass pamphlet on why Labour supporters have simply got to get their head round the need to be democrats.

So what's my problem?

It is not that AV is a compromise. Winning it could start to shift the balance of power away from traditional, centralised, winner-takes-all politics (see my exchange with Jerome di Constanzo). The trouble is that the compromise itself is being compromised. The way it is being legislated stinks of the old regime.
Here in OK we want to present as wide a picture as possible of the arguments about the voting system and their significance for the UK. We've already run extracts from the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg's opening speech in the debate. He said:

In the run-up to the election in May, all the major parties pledged to reform politics....there was consensus that this Parliament has a duty to restore trust to the institution of Parliament. So the people who put us here must now see us taking the action needed to do that, ensuring that politics is transparent, making certain that we can all be held to account, and ultimately, demonstrating to them that we understand that they are in charge. This Bill is a major step towards achieving that, because it is about the legitimacy of this House and restoring people's faith in how they elect their MPs... 

If this sounds like an apology for the Bill, this is because it felt like an apology when you heard it - not a rallying cry

Here is a picture of the Commons as the Coalition "sets about restoring people's faith" in it


Jack Straw, leading for the Opposition, agreed that there was a "crisis of confidence in British politics caused by the expenses scandal". This, he described as having happened, "Last year". In effect he was waving it goodbye. Nothing in the debate that followed registered any recognition of the fundamental problem with the legitimacy of parliament in the eyes of the public, and therefore a genuine the need for the 'change' they all rhetorically declare they favour.

It is made worse by the jacking together of the referendum on AV with the alteration in the number and size of constituencies. We all know this was as a result of the coalition deal when neither wide trusted the other to deliver on the part each wanted. But this could not be said out loud. As a result both the referendum and the equalisation of constituency size, proclaimed as being fair and transparent are being contaminated by hypocrisy and by their unnatural relationship with each other.

New Labour's considerable constitutional changes turned traditional piecemeal reform (always slow and spaced out) into compressed bits and pieces reform (quite big bits, too) that are having a disintegrative effect on the political system as a whole. Now the Coalition is carrying on like its predecessor, only in a single Bill.

Of course, there ought to be broadly equal sized constituencies. Of course the existing system generates grotesquely disproportional results (favouring Labour). But without the inclusion of actual proportional representation the latter can't be effectively addressed. By insisting on a majoritarian system - with or without AV - smaller numbers and equal sizes and doing it all before the next election the Tories are driving change in a quite unconservative fashion which must damage what they are seeking to preserve. It means abolishing public hearings (even though Clegg said "We must put the people back in charge") and giving permission for constituency boundaries to be decoupled from the recognisable boundaries of town, county and even island (in the case of the Isle of Wight). It was amusing to watch Conservatives and Liberals insisting on this top-down, arithmetical imposition, like classic centralisers through the ages, while Labour called for retaining organic links to traditional borders!

But even though most of the heavy lifting in the debate was in support of this Tory part of the Bill, as Ben Brogan noted in his Telegraph blog, there were no senior Tories supporting Clegg on the front bench.

Their absence became even more noticeable when the Lib Dems who were on the front bench to support Clegg walked out as well. Quite early in the debate when Graham Allen expressed his regrets that a Bill supposedly designed to strengthen parliament had been shoehorned through without pre-legislative scrutiny by his Committee, there was no one at all behind the dispatch box on the government side to listen to him. Mark Harper, the junior Conservative who closed the debate for the government was at the end of the bench doing his correspondence.

At the start, Clegg permitted Douglas Carswell to interrupt him to ask a question:

Mr Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (Con): If we are to have a referendum on electoral reform, why do we propose including only one alternative to the status quo? There is much talk of the new politics in which people, not politicians, decide. Why do we not let the voters decide what change should mean?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I accept that, on paper, a multiple-choice referendum is an attractive suggestion. For the sake of simplicity, however, it is better to present people with a simple yes or no alternative, exactly as set out in the Bill. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that my officials have produced a simple fact sheet explaining the operation of the alternative vote system and first-past-the-post system. I will place a copy in the Library today.

For the sake of simplicity!

Don't bother pulling the other one.

This from Clegg who rightly rejected those who objected to the date because it coincides with other elections, as something that British voters are quite capable of managing. He could have been honest. He could have said, "Of course, I'd like a PR option but this is a coalition deal". He need not have positively advocated the crippled nature of the limited referendum choice. By doing so he undermines the role and influence of the Lib Dems as well as his own credibility. I was reminded of his replies to the Select Committee that Guy reported, where he shirked two opportunities to set out his principles.

The result is an executive fix. Charles Walker, the Tory MP for the comfortably safe seat of Broxbourne (where he got over 58 per cent of the vote) said:

When introducing this Bill, the Deputy Prime Minister dressed it up as the beginning of new politics. Well, this is not new politics; it is old politics exercised at its very best or its very worst, according to one's disposition. It is about the Executive - the Government of the day - seizing more power for themselves.

He was not gainsaid.

Another Tory, Christopher Chope, quoted David Cameron himself, speaking in February:

How has the mother of all Parliaments turned itself into such a pliant child? If we are serious about redistributing power from the powerful to the powerless, it is time to strengthen Parliament so it can properly hold the Government to account on behalf of voters.

Quite. Chope concluded that this is far from what has happened. He ended by saying that he found it "extremely depressing".

He was followed by Labour's Austin Mitchell,

I have sat through debates on many unappetising measures in this place, both Thatcherite and new Labour, but I have never sat through a debate on a measure that has been greeted with such a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm as this.

Mitchell made the obvious point from the Labour benches about the lack of a PR option:

Why should we have a referendum on AV, which no one particularly wants, and not a referendum on proportional representation, which a large percentage of people do want? All the polls indicate that AV is less popular than PR. In a referendum in New Zealand in 1992, people were asked whether they wanted to retain the first-past-the-post system. When 85% of the population said no, they were asked what system they wanted to replace it. They were offered four possible options. The German additional Member system was supported by 70%, whereas the AV system that is being proposed here was supported by a tiny 6.6%.

After Clegg's opening speech, Jack Straw replied for the opposition. Straw personifies the disreputable low cunning of the parliamentary order. The Bill was "skullduggery" he announced. The master skulldugger spoke with unique authority.

But nothing and noone could outdo Margaret Beckett for complacency. The people, she proclaimed, already "have the influence and the power". In her view, winner-takes-all is the foundation of our peace and prosperity: "Over the years, many people, especially in other countries, have asked me to explain why Britain has such comparative political peace and stability. I believe that that is in large part because the British people know perfectly well how to make dramatic electoral change if that is what they want." As Neal Lawson says about our political system in his new Compass pamphlet: "It has the trappings of a vibrant democratic polis but is empty, hollow and in many ways pathetic".
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