The result of the referendum on the Alternative Vote did not come as a complete surprise to this blogger. The discussion was dominated by the conservatism of the Tory/Labour political establishment whose arguments were rhetorical rather than rational. The self interest of this group in stirring up hysteria rather than reason was obvious.
The Liberal Democrats, also clearly an interested party, fought the campaign with their reputation for principal already in tatters, and the whole issue unhelpfully identified with the deeply unpopular Nick Clegg.
The reforming elements in the Labour party who supported the Yes campaign, had a greater claim to objectivity, but never managed to really nail the arguments. Some of the strongest voices I heard in favour of the Yes vote were non politicians: Dan Snow; Armando Iannuci, Eddi Izzard but they were drowned out by the hysteria stirred up by the No campaign.
The electorate however deserve some castigation.
Before the 2010 election the electorate – every citizen member of it we might easily have supposed – was “fed up” with British politics and untrustworthy self-interested politicians [there was no other kind apparently]. Everything was going to change. Reform was on the agenda.
In a democracy, the electoral system is fundamental to the fairness of political institutions and the decisions that are made – an excellent starting point for reform. Presented with a rare opportunity for modest reform, of our electoral system, which is manifestly unfair and unfit for purpose, this movement for change has thrown the opportunity away in their enthusiasm to give Nick Clegg a bloody nose.
Politicians are fond of flattering the British People and like sleazy seducers, never miss an opportunity to say how intelligent, wise, courageous, fair minded, etc etc. they are. “You look as beautiful as ever my dear…” But it is not politicians but those who are so easily flattered that I now criticise. The result of this referendum provides only evidence of a decision made on the basis of narrow party interest, personalisation of the issue and a failure to grasp – or acknowledge simple facts.
This brings me to my main point which concerns the way we effect democratic reform and in particular the suitability of referendums as the key decision making process in this context.
The No campaign were keen to argue that AV was “complicated”; yet, to vote in an AV election is only marginally more taxing than voting in a FPTP election. Indeed, if ranking the candidates and writing 1,2,3 in the appropriate place had proven too much, then a simple and traditional X would have sufficed to ensure a vote.
To understand what is unfair about FPTP and why AV might be fairer requires a little more mental effort though this is comfortably within the capability of most people who are not being harangued by interest groups intent on confusing the matter.
I would make three points concerning democratic reforms.
- Democratic systems should be designed in such a way that they can be explained to a person of modest intelligence who chooses to explore their workings.
- It should not be necessary to engage with all the complexities of a democracy to ensure that ones status and rights under the system are equal to that of other citizens.
- Those designing or modifying democratic system should have a status in the society they serve which is generally acknowledged to rise above the interests of party politics and tribal or financial interests.
National referendums are probably a necessity where matters of sovereignty are concerned [membership of the EEC; independence of Scotland; the Good Friday Agreement]. Where justice and fairness are concerned, referendums however are not an appropriate way to make decisions as they are too easily hijacked by political interest groups.
The design of institutions and electoral systems for new states has not been decided in the past by referendums, but rather entrusted to people respected for their understanding of what is required and their ability to rise above the partisan and divisive nature of party politics. Without exception, following the downfall of the Soviet Union, Eastern Block countries have adopted Proportional systems. Whilst not all of these are model democracies, their record in general is impressive.
Following partition in 1921, the Government of Ireland Act put in place electoral systems to be used both in Northern Ireland and in the the Irish Free State. The system agreed for both was a proportional one – STV – and not First Past the Post, as used elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The Unionist Government of Northern Ireland, elected by the majority protestant population, took the first available opportunity to return the electoral system to First Past the Post and proceeded to run what was in effect a single party state until the onset of the troubles in the late 1960s. This demonstrates that the provision of a vote to all citizens whilst a necessary condition for democracy, is not a sufficient one. A proportional system might have enabled a more plural politics to gradually emerge from the religious tribalism that prevailed, and could have avoided the tragedy that followed.