Why a No Vote is better for British democracy

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Should the Alternative Vote (AV) be adopted for elections to the Westminster Parliament? The national debate on this question has been hideous in content and form, a mix of slur and stupidity on both sides. A plague on both their populist houses. Yet there is a fundamental question at the heart of this debate, one gasping to be heard and it has to do with the type of democracy and politics that we as a people want in the UK.

A healthy democracy requires conditions which support and sustain the inter-play of conflicting viewpoints. It is only in these conditions that passion for democratic contestation and new ways of thinking can thrive. The ‘rules of the game’ under AV risk embedding the exact opposite: a political culture founded upon triangulation, rhetorical vacuity and ideological homogenisation of a manner even worse than those under the present first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. As such a No vote is needed. Why?

Under FPTP one side wins power, the rest lose and the ‘elected dictatorship’ settles down until the next great ‘clash’. Yet said clash is already structured within a highly delimited set of pre-determined norms with those falling outside of this consensus being excluded to the exotic ‘fringes’. This is because FPTP creates a mixed system of swing and safe seats and winning a majority in the House of Commons necessitates parties capturing the former nominally ‘up for play’ seats. This results in ‘triangulation’, or political cross-dressing, whereby parties must adapt their messages/policies nationally to appeal to a political ‘centre ground’ defined on the narrow terms of these swingable seats. The results of this majoritarian consensus-forming system include: de-politicisation of huge areas of society and economy; “they’re all the same” public cynicism and passivism; and the contraction of argument and intellect, leading to a stultifying ‘managerialistic’ quasi-politics.

AV, a majoritarian system where candidates may be ranked in order of preference rather than a cross placed alongside one name only, compounds FPTP’s problems. Supporters argue that AV allows voters to show their true values and thus forces a broadening of politics as ‘mainstream’ parties fight for the second preferences of those presently excluded from the tyrannical triangulated consensus of swing seats. But AV actually forces greater triangulation of policies and rhetoric – not simply at the national stage as under FPTP, but in every constituency. While under FPTP parties can still stand divisive candidates (e.g. workerist Labour figures or neo-conservative Tories) in safe(r) seats, AV necessitates adopting policies, arguments, and language which won’t scare away possible second preference voters across the board. The affective weight here will not be the preferences of small groups of Greens or fanatical Europhobes but the peeled off grudging support of the larger mass of generally Labour, Liberal and Tory voters. The result would be an even greater downwards spiral into bland consensus politics (neo-liberal economics with a socially-liberal face).

‘Practical’ types, enthralled to voting mathematic, will cry pretension and irrelevance at this argument. Democracy, for them, means winning with a real majority of support. This is a miserable world view. We need a politics where ideas clash, arguments rage and passions are attached. With its homogenising, pasteurising processes, AV offers ‘End of History’ politics. Changing the voting system to one which compounds the present system’s flaws risks turning people off from the further, real change needed – an agonistic, proportional electoral system (PR). AV offers a stepping-stone from FPTP to PR in the same way that the ‘Really Existing Socialism’ was a stepping-stone from capitalism to democratic socialism. On that hyperbolic note I call for a No to AV (Yes to PR).

Article by Dr. David S. Moon.