Gone votin’: fishing for alternatives

So today sees the British go to vote on a variety of local and devolved issues – and, on a national level, on the referendum regarding a proposed change to the voting system to Alternative Voting (AV).

I refer you to the icon that accompanies this post as to which way I’ll be voting on the matter. Those of a sensitive anti-AV disposition should look away now.

Here in London, the referendum is the only game in town for voters – there are no local or regional elections here this year – and so the pundits are expecting an all-time low turn out for any vote in the capital as a result. That in itself is a huge indictment of the state of our democracy: that so few people can be bothered to turn out on a vote on how elections themselves should work. Is it that people don’t care? Don’t think it’s important? Don’t understand it? Wilfully want to thumb their noses at politicians?

Personally I’ve always voted, in every single election that I’ve been eligible for. I regard it as a privilege, a right and a responsibility to do so. And especially after the last few months where we’ve seen people rising up through the Middle East against dictatorial regimes for their right to have their voice heard, our ability to vote should be resonating even strongly than usual: but sadly it appears that isn’t the case. We’re bored with having to make decisions for ourselves it seems, and apparently find it hard to understand things even when we are spoon-fed.

Often it’s been argued that people are disenchanted with democracy because they go to the polling station and get the same old tired options, or often no option at all because they live in an area that skews toward Conservative or Labour (or even Liberal Democrat in a few seats) and so it’s obvious who is going to win, their vote won’t matter either way, why should they bother turning up? And that certainly is one of the issues with First Past The Post (FPTP), which is why people campaigning for electoral reform had such great hopes that overhauling the system would allow people more choice and more ability to accurately express what they want from their political leaders.

Well, it turns out what if you give the country the chance to overhaul the system, they don’t want to. So I guess the overwhelming majority of people feel that FPTP does give them the kind of governance that they want and political representatives who do what they say. If you’re voting for FPTP today, then you’re voting for the status quo and you should henceforth refrain from criticising the parties, the MPs, the politicians and the political system for the rest of your time on Earth. You had your chance; you fumbled the ball. Game over.

A couple of years ago you would have thought political reform that gave voters more sensitive control over their leaders would have been a slam dunk, what with the expenses scandal and the general dissatisfaction with the state of the country in both an economic and political sense. So were did it all go wrong for the pro-AV camp?

For one thing it’s been a lamentable “Yes” campaign. It’s not been coherent, and if I hear another strained, over-baked analogy trying to explain the AV system this year I’ll simply scream. What, we’re too dumb these days to understand something unless it’s preceded by the words “It’s as if …” before an even more confusing illustration than the thing it is trying to explain?

And the pro-AV camp certainly blundered big time when they positioned the initial campaign as a way of “getting rid of useless MPs” … “make them work harder for you” – because then every local representative felt slighted by the insinuation and the association, and why should they then bust a gut campaigning with you to get AV introduced? And moreover, it was a slap in the face to everyone who voted last time: “look, you screwed up with who you elected last time, you dumb pleb, so here’s how we’re going to fix it for you” doesn’t win many friends among the voters, either.

Sadly, the biggest factor in this referendum has been the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government. People who criticise Nick Clegg for what has happened over the past year miss how much he needed to prove that coalition governments were possible and even preferable if he was to have had any chance of getting people to vote for a system more inclined to produce election results without a majority winner. If the Lib Dems had refused to go into coalition then the whole viability of a non-FPTP system would have been open for question; and if, having gone into coalition, the thing had broken down in fights and acrimony then the electorate would have been forgiven for thinking that such outcomes had to be avoided at all possible costs in future. And so Clegg has ended up here in May 2011 where for all his good intentions he had managed to wreck his own personal credibility, that of his party – and yes, even that of coalitions and alternative voting systems after all. The way to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.

With everyone unsure what this whole AV thing actually meant, the ‘No’ camp always had the upper hand. When people are uncertain about anything, they’ll vote to stay where they are. It’s always easier to get people to vote against something than for something, which is why Britain’s only other national referendum – on EEC membership, in 1975 – cannily waited until we were in the EEC and then asked if we should leave: 67% voted to stay where we were. If the vote had been taken in 1971 before we joined, then I’m quite convinced a similar 67% would have voted not to join at all.

Voters will always take the “better the devil you know” line unless the current devil is really, really bad. And no one can really argue that FPTP is catastrophically bad, because we’ve seen with our own eyes for nearly two hundred years that it actually does a pretty acceptable job. It’s not perfect, perhaps, and it has its faults – but we know those faults, and familiarity breeds a cosy acceptance after so many years, so we’re happy now to muddle along with it.

Whereas AV would be a step in the unknown, and “No” campaigners can project into that black “unknown” void any sort of primal terror they want, and it seems no one can disprove it because it’s new and unknown. Hence the blatant lies about “It’ll cost £250m and wreck the economy!” or “It’ll let the BNP/al-Qaeda/your terrorist group of choice in!” or simply “It’s the end of thousands of years of democracy as we know it!” and people might not necessarily believe it, but it’ll still leave the uncertainty in their minds and so they’ll default to their safe, happy place when it comes to voting in today’s referendum so that they’ll stick with the current system.

It’s amazing how little people seem able to see through the “fear of the unknown” argument. Londoners who accepted and understood AV quite happily as the system for choosing their Mayor suddenly seem to regard it as an unknown hostile alien entity. Millions of people who vote in Big Brother, X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent quite happily seem convinced that they’ll never understand exactly the same system when applied to politics. It’s amazing how politicians and the media have persuaded huge swathes of the electorate how cretinous they are, that we believe a system the likes of which works quite happily in Australia and New Zealand (actually, those are much more complicated systems as it happens) are beyond the understanding of us mere Brits. What new level of national self-loathing have we reached to bring us to this?

Yes, AV might end up letting parties such as the BNP get representation in local councils – but of course, so did FPTP, and civilisation didn’t fall. Moreover, people should be able to vote for parties they want and not get shut out of having their views represented simply because there’s a bullying majority (and sometimes a majority of no more than 30% of the electorate) who feel that such views aren’t decent and shouldn’t be heard. That sort of suppression of people’s views and beliefs is fundamentally undemocratic and is one of the reasons why FPTP fails in my mind. Believing in democracy means believing that the BNP should have a fair crack of getting elected if their voting support warrants it, for as long as the BNP remains a legal political party in this country. You might not like their ideology (and I most certainly don’t) but democracy is about letting views that you disagree with, often passionately so, get a fair airing and a fair chance at the polling station. It’s up to those of us who disagree with such parties to marshal our arguments against them and make sure they don’t succeed, not to rely on a stacked electoral system to do our job for us.

AV isn’t the perfect Holy Grail version of proportional representation that campaigners have wanted and called for over the years. It was a “don’t scare the horses” compromise that the Liberal Democrats could get their Conservative coalition partners to agree to, and more importantly one they thought they could explain to the UK without getting everyone frightened about the end of the world as we know it. But at least AV would have started the momentum and proved there were options and alternatives and it would have been possible to carry on the debate: a “No” vote today shuts the door on the issue for a generation, just as the EEC referendum is seem as the final word on membership of the EU nearly 40 years on.

It turns out the reformers were over-estimating us after all, and that people will shy away from even the mildest unknown and prefer to stick with the flawed. As someone who genuinely believes in democracy and the will of the people, I can’t really argue with the outcome – it’s the will of the people, expressed in a fair and open vote, and that’s all I ever ask for. I’m just sad today that fear of the unknown should drown out the hope for better, and that people in the UK too often settle for second best and what they have rather than working, striving and hoping for more and better. If anyone wants to understand the fundamental difference between UK and US politicians, it is this: that in the US, they actually believe in the American Dream and Manifest Destiny and that things will be better tomorrow that they are today; whereas here, we are perpetually frightened of letting yesterday slip away because tomorrow will surely be worse. It must be so: it says so in the Daily Mail.

There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why?

I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?

– Robert Kennedy

In the meantime, I’m off to the polling station to vote. As there are only two options, it’s not a vote that would itself be changed by a switch from FPTP to AV so I can’t really cry foul. But I’ll be sticking with my pro-electoral reform beliefs that I’ve held for over twenty years, no matter how doomed they are, because even if the end result is indeed overwhelmingly for the status quo it still matters that we show how many millions of people aren’t satisfied with that. The more “Yes” voters who turn out today the more chance there is that someday the issue will be revisited and tackled properly. So even if it’s a lost cause in 2011, it still matters that people register their thoughts and beliefs today so that they may be recorded into history and used by posterity accordingly.

Go on. Just go out there and vote. Whichever way you vote and however you feel about the issue. Because either way, it really is too damn important to just sit there on your backside again.

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