People who enjoy waving flags don’t deserve to have one.– Banksy
Is this the start of a long Conservative hegemony?
The AV referendum result comes as a thundering blow. In an era when voters are in rebellion against the old two-party duopoly, a third refusing to vote for either of the old tribes, the chance to shape an electoral system that might reflect that mood by recording people’s true first choices has been cast away.
As for a properly representative system, that hope is dashed for years to come. Forget new parties breaking through, the portal to politics remains desperately narrow. Westminster can only be approached through the heavily guarded gateways of the old parties, barring the way to others. Parliament is a closed club that risks falling into deeper disrepute, further removed from its voters, less responsive to the increasingly complex feelings voters want to express. What’s the point of voting, the poll refuseniks ask on the doorstep, if no one outside the two big parties ever has a chance.
How perverse to vote for less choice, but the reasons why are simple. The issue was steamrollered flat by the political passions of the day. For too many of those on the centre-left, instant vengeance against Lib Dems drove out all thoughts of the political future. It was a vile campaign, the No side mendacious beyond anything I can recall, the Yes side insultingly stupid with its call to make MPs “work harder”.
Nick Clegg badly misjudged this by insisting the referendum be held on local election day, when winning councils was the activists’ priority. A stand-alone referendum, after the Lib Dems had been trounced, might have aired the question better.
Shedloads of cash from Tory donors did its work. David Cameron’s killer threat, untrue but mighty effective – that AV would leave the rump Lib Dems in power forever – probably won the day. But Labour’s split between its retro-revengers and its forward-looking pluralists was a disaster. If Tony Blair at the height of his power dared not face down his party and push for PR with Roy Jenkins and Paddy Ashdown, Ed Miliband was in a considerably weaker position to whip the party in to embrace a more fluid multi-party future. Of course AV in itself, that “miserable little compromise”, wouldn’t have produced that outcome – but voting it down makes all electoral reform moribund. So will the Lib Dems get House of Lords reform instead? No, the Tories will kill that too, just watch and see, whatever Cameron may pretend. For many the loss of any hope of electoral reform will mark a dark turning point in their enthusiasm for politics.
The great double losers of the day were the Lib Dems, poll-axed by the end of their reform dream. Thrashing about in near-death agonies, expect all manner of contortions that may be as self-destructive as everything else they have done in the last year. Their overall result was not quite as bad as some polls predicted, holding on in some places, but their catastrophic coalition miscalculation may yet split and wipe them out for a generation.
They may bring down the coalition. They may eject Clegg, but what’s the point of replacing him with Chris Huhne? Even before the last election, he was pressing the not-so-cunning plan of going into a death-hug with the Tories. All the Lib Dem leaders convinced themselves insanely that they must prove they were a grown-up party of government, eager to take harsh decisions as nasty as the Tories.
How badly they misunderstood the nature of their swelling support: they were a safe haven for voters not wanting tough choices, nice people with apolitical instincts, trusting Clegg’s promised “new politics” would keep their votes clean from contamination. Had the Lib Dems stood apart and stood their ground, loudly opposing Tory plans, objecting to the savagery of the budget without quite bringing down the government, they might have kept their virginity. Instead, their relentless trashing of “Labour who left us in this mess” slammed the door on an alternative coalition future – and ensured angry Labour voters killed off their AV hopes.
Today a frightening question confronts Labour: is this the start of a long Conservative hegemony? The economy is flatlining – but so is Labour. It gained too few seats, compared with its 2007 low vote. Why didn’t it do better? Unemployment is rising, the NHS faces deep cuts, libraries, leisure centres and Sure Starts are slamming their doors, while university fees terrify families, middle incomes shrink and growing ranks of economists warn that George Osborne’s plans are sending the UK into a downward spiral – yet Cameron’s shield is undented. Some progress is made with “too far, too fast” – but nowhere near enough yet. If there were a general election tomorrow, Cameron would win.Labour remains unforgiven, blamed for everything, its faces still too redolent of a rejected Brown era. Twenty-three policy reviews under the aegis of “No money left” Liam Byrne are not so far an inspiring prospect.
Meanwhile, Lib Dem votes collapsing to Labour may paradoxically yield more Westminster seats to Tories. Labour regained its northern strongholds but until it besieges Tories in the south, it’s not a contender. Losing Scotland was a blow. Boundary changes favour the Tories and if Scotland breaks away, then Westminster looks blue stretching into the far horizons of the future.
Is this the death of the idea that Britain has a “progressive majority”? Is this really a Conservative country after all, as the Blair/Brown/ Mandelson project always assumed? No, though without AV, first preferences can’t be proven: a fifth of voters are forced to vote tactically. A solid third of voters are Tory but the anti-Tory vote is now more dispersed and without voting reform, harder to assemble into a winning force.
What is the Miliband, pluralist wing of Labour to do about that? Open up the party to new entrants, hold open primaries to become the gateway into politics for unconventional candidates assembled around the spine of Labour values. Cameron has cooled on this, since the Totnes Tory primary delivered a GP critical of his health reforms.
Labour can only be attractive if it is welcoming, open-minded, free-spirited, the party that unlocks doors to Westminster for new ideas and new people. In the last weeks, the worst of Labour often paraded the opposite. Where once left and right were Labour’s deepest rift, now the deeper divide is the open-minded versus narrow sectarians. Haunted by its painful recent past, Labour has yet to tell us what it’s for.
A column from Polly Toynbee in The Guardian. This article gets to he bottom of the fundamental problems that Britain is now facing and more alarmingly, how difficult it will be to change or challenge them.
This is a stunning piece of analysis.
This is a point that I often try to make.
So our country is finally having a referendum on our voting system, though I could simply say ‘so our country is finally having a referendum’. This is because there has only been one occasion when the government has honoured us with this privilege in the past and that was in 1975.
Britain is regarded globally by governments, international bodies and academics as one of the most ‘stable’ democracies to have ever existed yet here at ground level the concept is rather sparse. The above example of a single referendum is a case in point but the truth is that the level of representation in Britain is shamefully low. That no government in the last century has held its position with more than 40% of the national vote is another jolly fact highlighting the issue. To push the point home, 10% of the population could select a party that represents their interests in a general election, yet that party could fail to occupy any of the seats in Parliament. That’s a whole 6,000,000 people who would not have a single voice to speak for them in Government.
We have a two party system, Labour who occupies the centre-left and the Conservatives who occupy the centre-right (all be it rather more distant from the mid-point than Labour). Two parties with a strangle-hold on power at a time when party identification in Britain is at its lowest in living memory. Essentially, the people of the UK are provided with a choice of two, neither of which truly represents any great number of the electorate yet there is no way to introduce new parties. Surely the point of Democracy is to allow the people to choose their representative in Government? Yet currently the vast majority of the population do not have their views accurately represented and are not allowed to choose a person or party who are capable of it.
The two major parties now win votes by telling the electorate that if they vote for someone other than the two big players, the major party that represents their views least will win. Does this not say it all?
I could go on but instead I will try to remain brief. It is for the above reasons that the forthcoming referendum on altering the voting system is significant. AV is not the king of the voting systems, it has many problems and will still result in many or even most not being fairly represented but it is symbolic.
Firstly, we cannot forget that despite its warts and short comings, it is superior to the power preserving fraud, masquerading as a democratic system better known as ‘first-past-the-post’ majoritarianism. It’s no coincidence that almost all of the negative press for AV is coming from the government because a move away will mean that they no longer only have to compete against one other for the right to rule the whole country. British majoritarianism is regarded with such contempt by academics and political scientists for its lack of fairness and basic democracy that whenever a massively closed, almost undemocratic majoritarian system appears in the world, it is referred to as adhereing to the ‘Westminster model’.
AV is not perfect but it is the first step. Changing the voting system in the UK will break the unquestioning acceptance of antiquated institution. It will illustrate that change is possible and that the system need not be the way it is. It will give the people a chance to realise that politics can be fluid and encourage them to demand a voice rather than to simply grumble every general election when it’s a case of ‘this bunch’ or ‘that bunch’. Not only may we have a better shot at choosing more worthy candidates and putting more pressure on the current giants but it will be easier for us to demand another change to something better still than AV. If we pass up the opportunity we give to the hegemony a mandate allowing them to say to us “you had your chance” whenever we demand better.
The campaign against AV has gained a great deal of momentum. If it is successful then you, the people of Great Britain have nobody but yourself to blame when British politics continues to be the undemocratic, shady and exclusive business it has been for over a century.
Are you someone that says ‘I want to take part in the referendum but I don’t understand what AV is all about’? If so, you need to see this.