To AV or not to AV?

Should we be having a referendum on AV or is it a dangerous and pointless distraction? Anthony Barnett, who hopes for a Yes vote, locks horns with Jerome di Constanzo, a French conservative of Burkean instincts.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett Jerome di Costanzo
1 September 2010

Should we be having a referendum on AV or is it a dangerous and pointless distraction? Anthony Barnett, who hopes for a Yes vote, locks horns with Jerome di Costanzo, a  French conservative of  Burkean instincts.

Jerome di Costanzo: The expected hung parliament wasn't a symptom of a sick democracy. The quick formation of a coalition government has proved the contrary. The FPTP voting system shouldn't be condemned. The vote was accurate in the sense that it illustrated the mood of the electorate -  “we don't know!” This referendum is irrelevant. It is pure "bougisme" - an expensive political entertainment.

Anthony Barnett: Oh, it’s sick alright. I agree that the Coalition has shown vitality and creativity. Especially in the Freedom Bill, rolling back the database state and protecting our liberty. But, it has only done so because there is a coalition. This is not thanks to FPTP as you claim, but because of a grotesque bias in the system. Had it been a fair version of FPTP the Tories would have had a commanding majority. In fact, in its present form (now being reversed) it gives Labour a 5 to 7 per cent advantage. If the same vote had been the other way around in May, Labour would have had a large majority - just as in 2005 when it governed without a coalition on 33 per cent of the vote. FPTP needs to go because it is intrinsically undemocratic.Thanks for introducing me to 'bougisme', the restless appearance of movement without change! I suspect you are right, the political class would like the referendum to be pointless. All the more reason for us to ensure it isn't.

 JdC: Our world is imperfect, but AV doesn't make it perfect. You extravagantly describe FPTP as "intrinsically undemocratic", but in AV I see the same fault. In Australia it has changed their representation very little. The same can be seen in France - its two-round election could be compared to AV, and if there is a problem with a majority, in the case of having 3 candidates in the second round, FPTP is still used. The French National Assembly is still in the hands of the major parties. The "Greens" sit in it only with the blessing of the Socialist party and the Modem (French Lib-Dems) have great difficulty surviving as a parliamentary group. AV will not change the present situation, and you know it. This is your secret truth; that it is in fact 'pointless' for you too. Take Back Parliament's agenda, after the adoption of AV, is to call a National Convention of the People. To do what? Force a new referendum for a proportional system? So, AV is just an alibi for forcing through a second referendum.

AB: Who talks about perfection? Be careful not to use this utopian (i.e impossible) measure to cloak a repugnant status quo. You only talk about outcomes - an elitist view. I've no doubt that AV can produce results as disproportionate and undemocratic as FPTP. But many more people’s votes will count, even if they are miscounted and there will be fewer safe seats which blight politics. Also, it's a referendum in a country starved of the experience of citizenship.  Of course I want more. It’s the thin end of the wedge.

JdC: Why don't you propose "more" right now? This referendum is a waste of time and money, so why not have one about proportional voting? Here is your real goal. Come on, have a bit of courage! Your rage against this poor parliament is overplayed, with rhetoric close to populism and, frankly, you are unrealistic. You present Westminster as an omnipotent apocalyptic beast, but since the Lisbon Treaty many of its powers have been transferred to the EU, while other powers have been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and now some more will be given to the “Big Society”. Your monster is looking disarmed. You talk about the need for a referendum, fair enough, but why not have one about the EU? Or the Big Society? I believe that these questions are more relevant and pertinent than AV.

AB: Got you! The Coalition has failed to trust the electorate and limited the referendum to a choice between the status quo and AV with the establishment - conservative with a small and large C - hoping AV will fail. You ask why in these circumstances I should support AV and I give you two good reasons from the perspective of voters presented with this limited choice: 1) The individual’s vote is much more likely to count; 2) There will be fewer 'safe seats', the bane of British democracy. What's your answer? You demand that I demand another referendum altogether! After you, Jerome. You tell me that I think Westminster is a monster from the apocalypse, whereas I think it broken and suborned.

JdC: Why fewer safe seats? I'm not convinced. AV will still favour the three big parties. What would a Green voter's second choice be? Labour or Libdem. And what of a UKIP voter? Conservative. Those less reasonable could potentially vote for the more eccentric option, say Skippy the Kangaroo's party. Those who abstain from making a second choice are still using FPTP.  From a certain point of view, my "individual vote" could force me to vote for the three main parties. I don't think that Westminster is broken or rotten, I just think that we have a crisis of authority. Where does Parliament stand between an undemocratic EU and an unclear Big Society? It is not status quo, but a standby.I don't ask for an AV referendum, rather a meaningful one.

AB: So we are agreed that one advantage of AV is that people's votes will count in a way they mostly don't under FPTP. You are right, however, that I have overstated the case on safe seats. AV might well end up with them as you describe. But it won't feel that way at first. And if it does not improve things we can argue for a better referendum with a choice of proportionality that will be, we both agree, more principled (even if you'd still cling to the status quo). The fact that you can ask, "Where does Parliament stand between an undemocratic EU and an unclear Big Society?" and conclude it is a mere standby demonstrates its rotten, broken character. Of course it will need more than a change in the voting system to address this. As I say, I hope it will be the thin end of the wedge.

JdC: Your supposed "advantage" of AV, that people's votes will count, doesn't actually mean that there will be better representation, only second hand votes. Changing the system of voting isn't a solution or the thin end of the wedge. With all the change and talk of change, no clear alternative plan has been formulated yet for our democracy - you just have to look at the state of the House of Lords to see this. AV or not, after the referendum, I don't believe that we would quickly start a debate about PR.

I'd like to introduce the question of morality and ethics. It seems a bit idealistic or maybe reactionary, but we can't describe the virtue of Parliament if we haven't a corpus of values shared by our MPs. Like a car, you can rebuild it and remodel it, but unless you have the oil to run it, it just won't move.

AB: Please have the last word, Jerome, and introduce morality and ethics. I agree that we should think about the virtues of Parliament now that the Honourable Members have been exposed. What ought to replace the now discarded gentlemanly codes? Modesty, courage, openness? How does independence rate when we have the party system and the media?

Graham Allen MP in an angry post sees the expenses scandal as in effect a stitch-up between the executive and the media, our two actual rulers, with the MPs being crippled by them. In all this we are agreed that AV does not of itself lead to a better system and I so much agree with you about the House of Lords.

Where we part company, I think, is not in the ambition of our desires for a better system, though you may be the more utopian in hoping that we can ever deliver a representative democracy. It is over the opportunity offered by a referendum to address the wider population and break open political debate about how the system works. This shift, cultural not institutional, in which all sorts of issues from the English Question to the EU, the House of Lords to a new constitution, will be mixed into the cocktail of politics, is what I welcome.

JdC:  If we want a debate about its morals and ethics, we must first know what the jurisdiction and sovereignty of our parliament is. What we know is that Parliament has a lack of independence due to the party system, the EU, quangos and activists. Can we talk about virtue when a parliament spends 700 hours on the subject of hunting and considerably less about the EU?

At least, despite its structure, the Lords is more efficient and pragmatic! In fact, we are living in a real activist-ocracy rather than a proper democracy!  In this context AV will change very little - I really do believe it is a "bougisme" or a "revolution of comfort". The device of the referendum would be a good thing to get out of this situation, but it needs limitations. The object of a referendum should be an expression of the view of the people, which has political consequences, and not to make laws. Leave this to Parliament. I think that representative democracy is a good system. It prevents the tyranny of the majority, which a referendum doesn't. The last election demonstrated something, or shone a light on a 'Freudian' complex: if Britons rail against their politic class and Parliament, they still like their own MP.

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

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