Under AV, Nick Clegg's position is the future of British politics

The Alternative Vote will not deliver more pluralism in British politics. Political competition will still converge around a median, it's just that the position of the median will change to something like Orange-book liberalism. Choose AV, and British politics will converge around Nick Clegg's position AV, like FPTP, is incompatible with Britain's pluralist society AV is not a distant but pluralist relative of FPTP. They are twins
Anthony Painter
19 April 2011

Staring out at me from a No to AV leaflet is a shifty looking Nick Clegg. It’s rather blatant negative and personal campaigning and has nothing much to do with the AV issue. Unwittingly, however, it makes an important point. If AV is passed then Nick Clegg- or at least his Orange book agenda- is a very likely future for British politics. You may believe in this agenda or you may not- and hands up, part of the reason for my ‘no’ is instrumental, but it is the logic of the system.

If you hear someone use words like ‘democratic’, ‘pluralist’, or ‘choice’ in favour of AV then run. It is an electoral system from the ‘majoritarian’ family- in fact, it’s FPTP’s twin though they are non-identical. These systems all share certain family traits- they lock out distributed minority parties and views, party competition within them converges around amedian position thereby reducing choice, they are unrepresentative and anti-pluralist. FPTP is broken as the last two elections have shown- as Anthony Barnett recently argued in his Durham speech. But AV’s logic is very similar to FPTP. It just creates a different ‘median’ around which the parties converge. That median as things stand is something like Orange book liberalism.

Neal Lawson’s ‘democracy by machines or morals’ argument has something to it. The shift from a world of deep and monolithic institutions to one characterised by shifting networks is well established. It is a complete non sequitor, however, to claim that AV represents this new world. Ultimately, it is a majoritarian machine-like electoral system similar to FPTP.

We live in an increasingly pluralistic society. There is no ‘majority’ anything. A pluralistic society and a majoritarian politics are ultimately incompatible. One of the lesser-commented aspects of the Fear and Hope report that I co-authored is that it demonstrates this political pluralism very clearly. 

It should be noted in passing that the report has faced a number of criticisms. In fact, on OurKingdom, John Grayson articulated two of the most common criticisms: that the opinion poll method shouldn’t be trusted and that the report suggests that Labour should be more right wing. Well, it’s not just Fear and Hope that is picking up the growing resonance of identity politics- it’s British Social Attitudes, a wealth of other opinion data, international comparisons, academic analysis, elections across the EU (just yesterday the Finnish equivalent of UKIP increased their support five-fold.) Secondly, the report suggests no strategy for Labour. As it happens I think a radical shift right is the wrong response but that’s just my judgement.

Fear and Hope is simply one way of looking at the politics of class and identity in combination. Class matters in our unequal society shaken by globalisation but it is complexly experienced and its relationship to politics has become muted by a combination of retail politics, individualism, the decay of old social institutions, emergence of issue networks and the rise of identity politics. So how does this interplay of class, society, identity, and politics cluster around groups of voters? It is as follows:


The groups to the left are ‘confident multiculturals’ and ‘mainstream liberals’(24% combined.) Together these two groups comprise 42% of Liberal Democrat identifiers. The two groups to the right are ‘active enmity’ and ‘latent hostiles’ (23% combined.) The purple bar is the ‘cultural integrationists’ and this group comprises 42% of Conservative identifiers.  In the middle are the ‘identity ambivalents.’ They are economically insecure and their concerns about, eg, immigration, are related to their sense of personal well-being and optimism. 37% of Labour identifiers come from this group but also 46% of people who don’t identify with a party. 

If we plot Labour (red), Lib Dem (yellow), Green (green) and UKIP (purple) identification on this graph, it looks like this:


Now, what relevance is this to AV? FPTP has a convergent logic. Let’s look at this from Labour’s perspective. To win a majority, you pitch at the median voter which means a rational party strategy would aim at something in the following area (think New Labour):


It is classic narrowcasting and that it what majoritarian systems tend towards. Now, under AV, the logic is to chase the second preference of proximate parties and that’s where you aim. With the party identification distribution above, Labour has two options: to pitch at UKIP voters or Liberal Democrats. Green voters are too few and besides they tend to be in areas where Labour is already strong- it was a Labour candidate that Caroline Lucas defeated in Brighton Pavilion. So a rational strategy would pitch more in the direction of ‘mainstream liberals’ and would look something like this:


So the logic is the same- narrow rather than plural. It’s just that the powerful marginal voters are different in AV compared with first past the post- in this sense, it’s not more representative.  If Labour’s strategy is to go for Liberal Democrat voters then it is Orange bookers that it will be pitching at in broad terms. Liberal Democrat voters now favour Conservative over Labour- Cameron’s combination of muscular liberalism, economic orthodoxy, and radical public sector reform has a certain appeal. Facing an AV seat penalty as a result of this Conservative-Liberal Democrat interaction, Labour would have to craft an appeal to Orange book liberalism or face difficultly in building a majority under AV. What this means is that Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats converge on the same political space.

So while AV will mean more marginal seats (about another 40 marginals) it won’t in fact mean more choice. It will mean a choice between three convergent positions.  This is a pluralism of parties within a minority ‘mainstream liberal’ view rather than a pluralism of society as a whole.  If that’s what you favour, then fine, by all means be instrumental. That’s a different thing from voting for pluralism, choice, and a more democratic system. In fact, while Neal Lawson argues that AV will constitute a radical power shift, Martin Wolf has argued in favour of it from an instrumental perspective for its conservative dynamic. And it is Wolf who is right given the nature of AV.

None of this means that AV doesn’t have any advantages over FPTP. The most notable one is that it records people’s real first preferences more accurately. The Fear and Hope report showed a 4% identification with the Green party (a figure boosted by the Liberal Democrat collapse in probability) but only 1% voted Green in 2010. They do face a penalty though this may also be a result of party organisation and strategic focus on just one or two seats as much as tactical switches or disheartened non voting- the same goes for UKIP (6% identification v 3% vote) and the BNP (3% v 2%).

But would a 1%-3% boost for each of the ‘major’ minor parties really radically improve our democracy? The case is vastly over-stated. It’s only representation and parliamentary seats that really makes the difference. Furthermore, a yes to AV would constitute a long pause in the pluralistic case for a reformed politics. A no on the other will leave the Liberal Democrats empty handed. A stronger negotiating hand could be used to push for House of Lords democratisation as a compensation for the lost referendum. An elected House of Lords- on the basis of some version of PR preferably- would add a great deal more pluralism to our political system than AV will ever do.

There is a strong reformist case against AV therefore. It’s not real reform. It is not more democratic, more pluralistic, and doesn’t offer significantly more choice and may even offer less. A really pluralistic system would combine an elected second chamber, more primaries for candidates, more local power, and, yes, potentially PR for the House of Commons also. The latter would rely on some mechanism for bridging the democratic gap that opens up through post-election elite coalition formation. It’s not insurmountable- a simple yes or no vote on a coalition programme could be held or parties would have to declare their favoured coalition partners and non-negotiables before the election. 

By putting this much energy into a non-pluralist electoral system, the case for real pluralism- including a less convergent electoral systems- and greater democracy has been deflected. This is not a case of rejecting the good because it’s not the best. It’s a case of seeing the close family resemblance between all majoritarian systems. The reformist case is about democracy, pluralism, and choice. These are also the reasons to reject both AV and our current majoritarian political system. I’d rather not have our politics converge around Nick Clegg. It’s nothing personal. It’s a simple matter of real choice.

Anthony Painter is co-author of Fear and Hope: the new politics of identity. The views expressed here are his own.

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