In this guest post, Young Fabian member James Roberts puts the case for supporting AV.
There is something intrinsically fair about the idea that the percentage of seats that a party has in parliament should be at least approximately equal to the percentage of people who hold corresponding views in the country at large. In contrast, there can be little argument that for a party to secure a majority of 65 (and 55.2% of the seats), as Labour did in 2005, with the support of only roughly 20% of the electorate, is undemocratic. This is partly due to an inherent bias towards the incumbent and partly due to the low turnout that year, but mostly down to the strange and quaintly simplistic voting system at use in the UK: First Past The Post (FPTP).
However, the only reform on offer in the near future is a switch to the Alternative Vote (AV). The distortions inherent in FPTP are well known, and while it is rather less well known that AV can lead to even bigger distortions, it does result in a considerable increase in the number of marginal constituencies and a majority of people’s votes counting, as opposed to the huge potential for wasted votes under FPTP. Most of the numerical arguments have been made and so instead I will try to present the cultural arguments in favour of reform.
Wheras the battle now is between the ability of each party to raise funds in order to swamp a small number of swing voters with material and the appearance of local activity, the deconcentration of electioneering from marginal seats can only increase the power of the individual to make their choices based on the needs of the local community.
The first post-independence Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, a Fabian socialist, made the case that democracy itself is not a ticket to the elysian fields, but is the very medium in which we, if we believe ourselves to be democrats and socialists, have to and should operate: “Democracy is good… because other systems are worse… But merely saying that democracy will solve all problems is utterly wrong. Problems are solved by intelligence and hard work.”
How can we condone continuing to support an antiquated and clearly badly-representative system? Even the joint leader of the German Communist Party in the 1920′s, Rosa Luxemburg, knew the importance of frequent and meaningful elections for maintaining a healthy public discourse: “Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element.”
The critics of AV will point out that the trend of falling turnout in Britain is bad enough already, without introducing any ‘fiendishly complex’ reforms that will ‘put people off voting’. On the contrary, it is by providing people with real choices and empowering them with decisions that can actually shape their own lives and their communities, that we can expect to see an increase in voter turnout. The critics will also point out that AV will lead to ‘consensus politics’, often pointing out the example of Italy’s record in (not) maintaining coalitions. This is less about the system itself however than the political culture of a region. Sweden has had a form of Proportional Representation (PR) since the 1930s which has resulted in the Social Democratic Party controlling the agenda of the ruling coallition. This has led until recently to a powerful social democratic consensus and some of the best rates of equality in the developed world, with Sweden (alongside its other Scandinavian neighbors) regularly placing in the top 3 in indices of political and economic freedom.
Before and during the UK 2010 general election, there were very few people who voted for the Liberal Democrats under the belief that they were a party of the centre-right, and in some ways they have succeeded in becoming a ‘moderating influence’ on some of the most regressive aspects of Conservative policy. Even on one of the Lib Dem flagship issues, tuition fees, we see that a considerable number of Lib Dem MPs are prepared to defy the whip and vote against any increase. While it might seem distasteful in today’s political climate to work with the Liberal Democrats, AV could only work to increase the chances of being able to rely on the ‘progressive majority’ that so many voters believed in before the election.
Eventually, with a switch to a more proportional system, such as a form of Additional Member System (AMS) which I myself favour, we could see many of the eurosceptic members of the Conservatives join the likes of UKIP. Meanwhile, it is possible that the gains the far left and the Greens would make might come at the expense of Labour and the Lib Dems, but it is unlikely that a coalition of the left could arise without Labour forming the lynchpin of such a force, as in Sweden.
If we vote against AV in the referendum in May, we do so only out of fear, and yet it will be our undoing. The malaise which has afflicted turnout and general trust in politics in the UK is amplified by the ineffectiveness of our voting system. The thing that people disliked about Labour towards the end of the last government was that politics became something that was done to people, rather than something people did for themselves. Cameron has proposed the ‘big society’ as a hazy way to tap into this desire for localism; we can go far beyond this rhetoric and instead of expecting the army of volunteers to appear, actually empower people to make the changes they want to see for themselves. This is what the Labour movement has always been about. This is the kind of issue we as a party have to put to the forefront of our campaign. This is the political extension of the work done by the co-operative movement and can only result in greater levels of equality of income and opportunity.
But only if we vote ‘Yes’ in May.
This was originally posted on the Merseyside Fabians blog.