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Vote 'Yes' for a change

At a London debate the argument for changing Britain's voting system was narrowly voted down and OurKingdom's Co-Editor was on the losing side. What he said was drawn from this long draft.

Yesterday there was the Intelligence Squared debate on London on whether to vote AV in the referendum. I opened for the 'Yes' speakers and David Davis MP closed for the 'No'. David Aaronovitch and Peter Kellner were with me speaking for a 'Yes' and Rodney Leach and Michael Pinto-Dushinsky were the other two on the 'no' side. I was told to expect a quirky, Conservative west London audience (about 500) paying £25 a head. The opening vote was: for AV 168, against 199, don't knows 112 (a 'no' majority of 31). The closing vote was: for 240, against 258, don't knows, 11 (a 'no' majority of 18). So we closed the gap.



I was  shocked at the complacency of the 'no' side who assured the audience that the system was "not broken". There was one moment I thought we got through. In the question period they said how appalling it would be if the 'Yes' vote won with less than 20 per cent of the vote on a turnout below 40 or even below 35 per cent. I made the point that if they couldn't get a significant number out to support the existing system even if they in fact win it would confirm the profound disconnect between people and the political class and the broken nature of the system. I saw a glimpse of alarm in their eyes, not of me or of losing the vote but that their beloved system of rule might indeed be on an abyss. Each speaker had less than nine minutes to set out their case. I hope to be able to post mine on YouTube. Meanwhile, here is the much longer (twice as long) first draft on which I based my speech.

Ladies and Gentlemen, If we want to secure our democracy we need to send our rulers a warning.

In 2008 Gordon Brown persuaded our MPs to support jailing people without charge for 42 days. David Davis stormed out of Parliament and forced a by-election. He linked the attack on the principle of Habeas Corpus to the rise of the uncontrolled surveillance and the plans for ID cards and the database state.

There were two speeches in that debate that convinced me he was right. One by Diane Abbott who compared the Commons to a bazaar, where support for 42 days had been openly traded. On the video you can see her colleagues smiling at her description. No one refuted it. You can feel the expenses crisis coming down the line. The second was by David’s own leader who claimed the public did indeed support 42 days but it was wrong. He thus endorsed the traditional view that we, the people, are unwashed dangerous xenophobes who need to be ruled by those like him who know best.

To the execration of commentators and colleagues David Davis disagreed. He paid the price of future high office by taking the principle of liberty to his voters and through them to the public at large. I am proud I canvassed for him and thanks to his boldness public opinion was indeed turned around.

But you have to ask, why was this necessary? How could the House of Commons have been so suborned by executive power?

The simple answer is that we have an uncodified constitution that permits  elected dictatorship. Our politics isn’t openly criminal, like many others. But it is corrupted by its over-centralisation. The heart valve that pumps dishonesty into our body politic at every election and in preparing for elections (which Prime Ministers are obsessed with as soon as they are elected) is an election system driven by First Past the Post.

David Davis has called this a Tory system. I take this to mean he thinks it is principled, honest and decisive.

I am afraid this is untrue. There are such Tories. But First Past the Post is a conservative system: slouching, manipulative, untrustworthy and dishonourable.

And I have to tell you that there is nothing more conservative in British political life, and no more stubborn supporter of our voting system, than the Labour back bencher.

Compared to them John Reid (whose baleful influence personified the deep alliance of New and Old Labour) is a figure of the enlightenment.

I witnessed this in with the launch of Charter 88 when I first got involved in arguing for fair voting. We took the Charter to all the party conferences. A Labour campaign for electoral reform was making headway, and a great mobilisation against it was organised which I went to observe. Its keynote speaker was the epitome of the Labour backbenches, Dennis Skinner.

We must save First Past the Post, he roared. It defines the very purpose of the labour movement and the principle of power itself, he contiunued, and he paused as we waited for his definition:

“To the victor the spoils!”

Margaret Thatcher, and after her Tony Blair and their mutual friend Rupert Murdoch, could hardly have agreed more.

You might think the language medieval and archaic, but there is nothing Christian – or in David’s sense ‘Tory’ - about openly celebrating the corruption of power in advance of obtaining it.

It was First Past the Post that gave Labour its large majority on 2005 with the support of less than 25 per cent of the total electorate and less than a third of the actual, popular vote. Its methods of focusing on the swing voter is a sophisticated form of cheating. It corrupted the Labour Party, whose new leader is struggling to deal with the consequences. It is corrupting the Tories now.

Ladies and gentlemen I want to address the ‘no’ voters amongst you. If you have tried to follow the dust-up over the referendum you will have experienced what I call the fetishisation of small outcomes, the ‘who said what when’  and ‘ya-boo to you too’. It is Legerdemain, if I may salute the French origins of the word parliament. In plain Anglo-Saxon, slight of hand, smoke and mirrors. The petty rows of what passes for 'politics' distracts our attention from what is really going on.

Here is what is really going on.

In the 1980s our political class turned on our industry, local government and the trade unions and instead bet the British state on globalisation. The City of London and its financial services became its open empire glorifying the revenues of privatisation, property inflation, securitisation and derivatives. These were the spoils that went to the victors.

Margaret Thatcher started it. John Major deepened it. Tony Blair’s decade turbo-charged it. Gordon Brown basked in it. Amongst senior politicians only Vince Cable gave a modest cough of dissent.

Then came the crash, for which we are only just beginning to pay. Shortly after came the MPs expenses crisis. It was not the amounts but the culture of entitlement and permissiveness it exposed, with honest MPs implicated because they knew and were silent. It became a crisis of legitimacy of parliament itself - and from the way the referendum is being conducted we can see this crisis too is not over yet either.

How did we voters respond when we had the chance in the 2010 election?

We hung parliament.

It was a good call ladies and gentlemen. But those who run our system were not humbled. Rather they were smart and shameless. Determined to preserve at all costs the supremacy of the banks and the financial sector, now redefined as ‘the national interest’ no less, the Coalition was prepared with the open support of the civil service.

To succeed they had to distract us into believing that they were also dealing with the crisis of legitimacy. David Cameron said he would, “give people power and control” (7 July, 2010), “power will be yours” said Nick Clegg (19 May 2010). It’s “a revolution” David Cameron told his party conference.

Their words. And to say them with a straight face they needed to offer us a referendum.

"Oh great!" You might say, "will that be the referendum Cameron made a cast iron promise to hold on the Lisbon Treaty? Or a referendum on whether we English are entitled to our own parliament like the Scots and the Welsh? Or a chance to decide whether the bankers should get bonuses while we bail them out?"

No, no, no. (To borrow a phrase.)

It will be a referendum on the voting system. But we won’t even be given the chance to choose a proportional system like other European countries. Even if you believe AV is the best way to slice electoral bread ever devised you can concede that in an adult referendum we should be offered a full menu.

This is where the slight of hand comes in. You may well conclude you need to vote ‘no’ because you don’t trust the question, don’t see the point of AV as it feels like a contemptible compromise, or distrust the way the question is framed and the choice being offered.

If so, you will have been taken in! For you will end up endorsing the very system that made such a mess of the question in the first place. If you vote ‘no’ and the ‘no’ vote wins it means you will have fallen for the trick and helped take the country with you.

For our political class will turn to you and say,  “You see, we have a perfect political system. When we offered you the chance you didn’t want to change it in even the smallest possible way!”

‘No’ voters will be entitled to scratch their heads and say, hold on, I didn’t vote Yes to being ruled by Brussels, the hyper-centralisation of Britain, unlimited support for the bankers and letting Westminster enjoy the spoils.

“Really”, will come the answer, “but my dear chap, I’m afraid you have. After all this fuss and expenditure the public can’t possibly want another referendum!"

Still baffled as to how the trick works? The way in which the Coalition negotiators decided on AV was a cynical exploitation of an opportunity given them by Brown's Labour Party. The Tories didn't want a referendum or to change the electoral system at all. The Lib Dems wanted PR, but they wanted to get into a coalition government even more.

Don't be taken in by all the attacks on Nick Clegg. The Lib Dems are acting as a heat-shield for the Conservative warhead. The architect of the Coalition and its policies is David Cameron and his small team. Team Cameron decided to offer the Lib Dems a referendum limited to a new electoral system that nobody wanted. The result? Cameron and his team can now attack the referendum for offering an alternative that "nobody wants".

Ha, ha. So much for a revolution giving the people power.

A 'no' vote will follow and the status quo will have been endorsed, its legitimacy re-burnished.

We need to send the status-quoers a warning. They say our rulers know what is best for us, that we can't possibly rank them, 1/2/3. We must not risk opening politics up to newcomers. We have to stick with what we have got.

But our rulers palpably don’t know what is best for us. They supported the Iraq war when we in the streets were the wise ones. They didn’t see the crash coming when they could have gone to any pub and talked with people paying off mortgages with new credit cards who knew it couldn’t last.

Today, it may be even harder to preserve our liberties and secure our livelihoods.

But if we endorse a system that celebrates giving our rulers the spoils we are asking to be robbed of our freedom and our wealth. And we will be.

Don’t endorse the dishonest status quo by voting ‘no’ and backing First Past the Post, winner take all from us elections.

Vote Yes for a change.

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness

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