3 July 2010

Will the AV referendum doom the case for PR?

Unanimity and general condemnation, it seems, for Nick Clegg's plot to hold the Alternative Vote ("AV") referendum on the 5th of May 2011 - rudely interrupting the Holyrood poll, due to be held on the same day. I'll have more to say on this later, but firstly a word or two on the subject of the referendum itself. I've yet to decide how to vote. I'm interested in anything you might care to add on point, but here is my thinking on the subject thus far, on the strategy of the thing as well as its principle. 

I am no fan of first-past -the-post and am generally a proponent of proportional representation. Firstly, it is worth emphasising again that AV is not a proportional electoral system. So what is the referendum for? Those backing the scheme seem to be making a species of gradualist case for supporting AV. They suggest, in the round, that moving away from our current system will set the argument about further electoral reform further in motion. We can water our horses at the oasis of AV, before cantering onwards towards a proportional system. Winning on AV represents progress in the right direction, they'd submit. In a recent discussion here on Scottish independence, you may recall that similar arguments were adduced. It should come as no surprise that similar critiques can easily be mounted. Contra the claims Liberals and their supporters,  a yes vote on AV will not be progress for PR, but only a mirage of progress. There is no logic to the reform, no unfolding. Or to put it another way,  it is only progress if we convince ourselves it is and retain an impetus and a strategy. Why should we imagine that AV is a median position between winner-takes-all votes and proportionality anyway? What justifies that topography? Appeals to the inner logic of the system hardly seem convincing to me. The Liberals talk about AV being more proportional, hence some degree of the most proportional systems, but this is widely discredited bunkum.

For those like myself, in favour of substantive proportionality in our legislatures, the fundamental question, the challenge, must be this: will this AV referendum set-back or enhance the likelihood of a proportional system being adopted in future in UK elections? Is a gradualist argument for PR reform wasting its political capital? Isn't the Liberals' high-voiced, awkward advocacy of the case for AV electoral reform not primarily concerned with saving their own bacon, justifying entering the coalition and hoping that nobody noticed how much they conceded to get there? In terms of Scottish nationalism, I find the case for caution far more compelling - empowering institutions, entrenching competencies, rearranging our public institution so Scottish separateness and rugged independent assumes more and more obviousness. But PR? The parallel seems to be decidedly wobbly. Who is afraid of the big bad proportional wolf? While I think that a sour nationalism, refusing to involve itself in all devolutionary efforts would be counter-productive - I'm currently sympathising far more fully with the fundamentalist logic on votes for proportionality. AV represents a wobbly, gelatinous sot. One, I'd argue, that presents a real possibility for cunning Tories, opposed to any principle of proportionality.

Few may have noticed, but the Liberals' slithering, presenting AV as if it was a proportional system leaves the pulsing jugular of the cause wide open. What happens if the referendum fails? We keep the unfair first-past-the-post system, for sure. But crucially, the Tories will be able to parade about, scrambling to present the defeat as a generational rejection by the British people of principle of proportionality in Westminster elections. What will be the Liberals' argument then? They can't, in good conscience, or in successful politics, suddenly remember that AV wasn't proportional anyway, clinging to the broken wreck of the good ship Electoral Reform. It may well be, then, that by assenting to a referendum on AV the Tories made a splendid and subtle calculation, significantly to the detriment of future short-to-middle-term arguments for adopting single-transferable vote or proportional equivalents. Their handmaidens in this, blushing and bashful, will have been the shame-faced Liberal Democrats, too abashed to admit that their grand wheeze wasn't quite what it was cracked up to be. Paradoxical, ironic certainly - but I'd argue a highly probable result, all told.

So should one support AV, despite its drawbacks, in order to avoid this negative case? If there has been a waste of political capital - then this has happened already in the hot days of coalition negotiation before the Con-Dem Government fully took office. What is more, introducing new systems are invariably attended by that clay-footed damsel, sticky honey-slow Dame Inertia. Reforming old ways of working and introducing novel operating mechanisms need to be decided upon, tested for their feasibility, acquired, reviewed, promulgated. If the country votes yes, that means, at the very least the 2014 Westminster General Election being carried out using AV, before our brave Liberal knightlings don their armour and mount their increasingly blown old nags for a new crusade for PR proper. All of that is already beyond our control, negotiated away by Danny Alexander and chums in sweaty rooms in London. Should we therefore now concentrate on what is now possible, with minimal recrimination? It shan't help much, after all, however alleviating it might be. 

I imagine there are a great many folk, sympathetic to proportionality, who are equivocating along very similar lines to myself.  If that group - we - can be persuaded to vote no - probably on a calculation that it will be easier in future to overthrow first-past-the-post in some great thrust than the ambivalent AV system -  this may be a real problem for the yes campaign. Almost nobody, as far as I can see, is really for AV on its own account. It does not appear to have its own constituency, and thus will rely on poaching folk who are after a political system which it cannot hope of furnishing. If that group divides and a substantial number unites with those hard-bitten Tory majoritarians who don't give a fig for properly representative democracy - Nick Clegg may be left crying into his boiled canary soup. A No vote seems to strike a brutal blow to the case for PR, if the Tories have the wit to employ the strategy I suggest. A Yes vote seems merely to mean that the gallant PR footsoldiery live to fight another day. It is an outrageous and demented position for the Liberals to have put themselves - and us - in.  So what should I do?


  1. Good questions all, but the "we voted for the status quo" argument would kill PR amongst the less nuanced media, and AV would ensure preferential voting became widely understood: all you need to do to get to STV is merge a few constituencies, the more the better (crudely), and folk will already know how the ballots should be marked. So count me as cautiously for.

  2. Interesting, James. A resuscitation of the "progressive, half-way house" argument, but with new material, moving towards a "sophisticated" electorate, familiar with the sorts of voting procedures - if not voting outcomes - which AV and PR share.

    I fancy it isn't a rousing enough credo to justify the Liberal position, however - and that the debate will lapse into talking about or giving the impression we're talking about AV as a form of PR. Certainly, it'd be one in the eye for the old fossils on the Scottish Labour benches - the "my constituents are too thick to do anything but scratch their X brigade".

    You are also right to emphasise another point. I suggested the Tories could capitalise. Equally, we can hardly ignore our friends, the Press, who inevitably will cling to certain well-tried lines of exegesis.

    Still not convinced in either direction myself. Will give it more thought. Anyone else with an inclination one way or t'other, do share!

  3. Reads like a Yes vote to me.

  4. Given the very-probable, even necessary ugliness attending any referendum failure - you may be right Anonymous. However daft it may be that nobody will actually feel as if their preference has been defeated - the wider implications are pretty ghastly.

    Lawrence makes a few excellent points elsewhere, noting that "shaking the foundations of FPTP is a step in the right direction ... voters will see tradition isn't everything; PR then to follow?" He shares my concerns, suggesting that "the alternative is horrible - same ossified structures for +1 generation". AV may thus have some benefit, if that is only to "create conditions for change, even for after we're gone".

    A glum thought that, all said.

  5. AV is not proportional, nor are the Liberal Democrats presenting it as so. But AV is more representative than, hence better than, the current system.

  6. On presentation, I'd say there is more ambivalence, more shades in the coverage that might imply, more or less precisely, that AV is proportional(ish) somehow. The Liberals, of course, don't have the discussion to themselves. We've got the press to contend with, who always love inaccurate conflations.

    Let's hope it isn't just blind alley of mild betterment.