Why people who think the No2AV campaign is full of crap should vote No to AV, especially if they’re Labour
This is a guest post by Tim Flatman.
Now is probably too late to make a stunning intervention in the AV debate.
The Yes to Fairer Votes and No2AV campaigns seem determined to act as a metaphor for parliamentary politics by giving us a straight-up choice between the politics of increasingly aggressive personal attacks made from an ivory tower by patronising middle-class liberals who think they have a monopoly on nebulous terms like “fairness”, and the cynical politics of misdirection, contradictory lines of attack and the occasional flat-out lie.
Even political geeks have stopped listening and certain victory for #meh2av seems to have been denied only by its absence on the ballot paper.
It’s in this context I’m going to try and set out a case against AV that ignores all the No campaign’s talking points. The basic thrust of my argument, strangely enough for someone who is on the left of the Labour Party, is a conservative argument – conservative with a small “c”.
It’s that the limited advantages that AV offers are not worth the risks that change brings.
I know, it doesn’t challenge the impression the Yes campaign are trying their hardest to create, that all of us who oppose AV are unreconstructed dinosaurs and the Yes campaign are shining progressive knights of the 21st century round table ready to slay us so the people can be freed from our unfair tyranny.
I’m not going to argue the acceptable progressive anti-AV case that a yes vote on AV will stop us getting a vote on a more proportional system.
It might. It might not. If we got a vote on a more proportional system I’d probably vote against that, too. I fail to see what is so democratic about a proportional system. But that’s another post. Here I’ll go flat out for ultimate Dinosaur status and try to support my preference for First Past the Post over the Alternative Vote, i.e. the choice we’ve got in May.
AV makes us think about politics in the wrong way.
When we think about a voting system, we shouldn’t just think about the mathematics of how many people voted for whom, how the votes are counted and whether it’s fair, but also about what we’re asking people to do and whether it encourages a view of politics that is healthy for democracy.
Preferential voting encourages people to think about politics in terms of sending a message, rather than making a choice about who they want in government. AV supporters argue preferential voting means people get to vote for their true first choice first, knowing that their vote will still “count” if it turns out other voters think their first choice are a few bathplugs short of an expense claim, and that in turn means voting is more honest. I’m not convinced.
Aside from the fact that by this logic, only the votes for the winning party end up “counting”, what the shiny progressive knights fail to recognise is that people weigh up scores in competing metrics when they consider their vote. They don’t vote solely on what values each party has, they also weigh up how competent, or trustworthy, or otherwise each party seems to them and sometimes competency outweighs policy, or policy outweighs trustworthiness, or some other metric outweighs some other metric.
In other words, if you vote Small Socialist Organisation Whose Collective Membership Is Made Up Of Two Extended Families 1 and Labour 2 because you like SSOWCMIMUO2EF’s policies better, it might still not be an “honest” vote.
You might want a Labour government, but still preference another party first. Tribal Labourites and die-hard Tories will end up giving their first preference to fringe parties not necessarily because they want those parties to form a government but in order to send a message. AV will reduce voting to gestures.
If you doubt this will happen, consider the last Labour leadership election.
I gave Ed Balls my first preference. But everyone knew one of the Miliband brothers would win. I didn’t want David Miliband to win. So did I give Ed Miliband my second preference?
No. I gave Diane Abbott my second preference, so it was clear that the eventual transfer to Ed Miliband came from the left. I hated voting in this way, but the system incentivised me to send a message, rather than make a straight choice about who of the available candidates was the best leader.
Tory voters on the right will use AV to try and push Tory candidates further to the right by giving their first preferences to UKIP, and Labour voters on the left will use AV to try and push Labour candidates to the left by voting for SSOWCMIMUO2EF or the Greens. But it doesn’t mean they’d actually prefer those candidates.
Is this worse than First Past the Post’s own perverse incentives, encouraging people to choose between the two parties who did the best at the previous election?
After all, that incentivises people to vote for parties they may not wish to see elected, too. Actually I think it is worse. First Past The Post rewards solid organisation over a period of time.
There is nothing wrong with a system that encourages voters to make a realistic choice between parties that are the best at mobilising support. With patient mobilisation, different parties can work their way into second place and then first place within two or three elections. That has happened in a few seats where the Liberal Democrats have replaced the Tories or Labour and gone on to win the seat. So too, if a traditional party jettisons its support base, or a new section of society with new interests emerges, it may be possible for another party to build itself patiently.
I am not convinced that a system which, by encouraging voters to “send a message”, may reward the sudden emergence of parties based on zeitgeist issues, is better than one which requires parties to develop a solid support base and which therefore reflects the fundamental cleavages in our society.
Ultimately I disagree with a philosophy of electoral politics that is about each individual deriving the maximum value possible from their vote. In fact, electoral politics makes very little sense at all if you consider it from the viewpoint of an individual, whose vote is unlikely to make any difference in determining the outcome.
Elections should be about communities coming together to make a collective decision about who will represent them, anointing someone to act as their champion in parliament. They should be events, not opinion aggregators.
AV would reinforce a view of voting which is about what I get out of it, about me getting across my opinion. It would strengthen gesture politics. Perversely, in making electoral politics more about sending a message and less about consciously choosing who governs us, it would increase the distance between the public and politicians. Suddenly it doesn’t matter who gets in, it matters what message we send them. Having our say becomes more important than making a decision.
AV could reduce the power of the least-represented.
Maybe you don’t think I’m a dinosaur. Maybe you just think I’m wrong. You’re a liberal. You believe that communities are simply collections of individuals, nothing more. We should encourage a market-based view of politics that is about individuals competing with each other to get their opinions across, there’s no more authentic form of democracy than a market.
Sorry, but I refuse to accept that I’m merely wrong. Here’s where I go flat out for unreconstructed dinosaur status, by raising the spectre of class.
We don’t know what the long-term effects of changing our voting system will be. But there has to be a chance that it will increase the numbers of people giving their first preferences to fringe parties, and that over time that will enable fringe parties to come to power.
If more people start voting for SSOWCMIMUO2EF, they will start getting taken more seriously, more people will join them, encourage others to vote for them, people who vote for the people they see as the “main” parties will consider voting for them and eventually a plethora of parties will get representation in parliament.
The more parties are represented in parliament, the higher the chance of perpetual coalition government and the less chance there is of the working class seizing power and making bold, radical reforms. As someone on the left of the Labour Party, that is what I want to see, and it seems less likely if we have a plethora of parties represented in parliament, some based on ideologies, some based on representing interest groups which span across classes (a Pensioners’ Party, perhaps?), some based on single issues.
AV may not lead to that outcome, but it may do, and I’m not prepared to take that risk for a system that delivers little in the way of improvement to our current FPTP system.
I said earlier that the current system reflects fundamental cleavages in our society. I was talking about class.
At the last election, a (literally, not metaphorically) toothless retiree told me the Tories were for the rich, Labour were for the working class and the Liberals were for those in the middle. It might be crude, I might want to refine his analysis slightly, but when it comes to the crunch I’m with Gums.
I’m glad we have an electoral system that reflects what I see as the most important cleavage in society. I’d like it if the Labour Party was a bit more radical, I’d like it if the British working class as a whole were a bit more radical, but changing the voting system isn’t going to fix that.
The immediate instrumental effects of AV could be bad for the working class, too. It is widely recognised that underprivileged groups are less likely to vote. Under FPTP, parties are incentivised to identify their potential vote and motivate them to turn out. The short campaign is structured around GOTV – Get Out The Vote, for any readers who aren’t political hacks. For Labour, that means especially motivating voters in deprived areas to get out and vote. Y
es, in most marginal constituencies that is not enough on its own, and we also have to persuade swing voters to vote Labour. But motivating voters who sometimes vote and who, when they do, always vote Labour, is a big part of our campaigns. And those people are usually amongst the poorest. They’re the people who Labour is there to represent, and who other mainstream parties couldn’t care less about.
Sometimes it seems like Labour governments couldn’t care less about them, either, but then the Tories get back in and we remember that compromised Labour governments are always better for the working class, and especially the worst-off, than governments of any other colour.
AV could change all that. It may turn out to be easier to get the second preference of someone who will definitely vote than it is to persuade someone who rarely votes that this is the election that really matters.
Suddenly we stop chasing the first preferences of the least-privileged and start chasing the second preferences of the already-privileged. We spend less time campaigning in our “core” areas. We spend less time listening to the most under-represented working class voters. We develop policies that are designed to win the second preferences of UKIP voters, Green voters, English Democrat or Liberal Democrat voters, rather than motivating the least-motivated to vote. We stop being the Labour Party and become something else. A pale imitation of the Liberal Democrats, perhaps.
So I think Labour supporters should vote No to AV.
Not because FPTP is better for Labour than AV. Labour supporters of AV argue it would keep the Tories out for a generation, those who oppose it say with the new alignments brought about by Nick Clegg’s election and personal coalition preferences, it could be Labour that would be kept out for a generation. I don’t think any of us can be sure about which of those is true. Probably it’s neither.
Labour supporters should oppose AV not because it could be bad for our party but because it could be bad for the people our party was set up to represent.
Labour supporters should oppose AV because it encourages a liberal individualist view of politics, rather than a collectivist view that better reflects our values. And while we’re at it, let’s reclaim the language that’s being used to demonise us.
I’m an Unreconstructed Dinosaur and proud of it.