06 July 2010

Changing the wrong system I: A vote for AV is a vote against FPTP!

Now that the government has put the alternative-vote (AV) referendum forward, it seems to be time for anyone and everyone, having had well sufficient time to consider the question, to start picking sides. On the democratic left there are basically two camps:

1) Vote yes for AV; it's not real proportional representation but it's what's on offer and it's progressive.
2) Don't vote; the gains from AV are outweighed by the implied legitimisation of an illegitimate system.

The Green Left being about the farthest right a group can be and still pronounce the "left" in their name without giggling, one is accustomed to a certain amount of ashamed shuffling as the GL try to distance themselves from us dangerous elements on the left who believe in, for example, socialism. Nonetheless one is surprised this week to learn that Derek Wall, Green Party exec, member of the GL steering committee and former Male Speaker of the Greens, has invented a third camp, or at least, borrowed it from the Tories:

3)Vote no to AV; it's better than first past the post.

Now, Green support for AV was always lukewarm, as it should have been; it's an incremental improvement. And back in February, Green Party chair Caroline Lucas recognised this, and still did when she said in May, after the election, that AV "would go nowhere near enough". In June Wall noted correctly that "AV is not a proportional system" and on 2 July, the day Derek Wall publicly supported the "Vote NO" campaign, he roundly savaged alternative vote by saying:

AV is a little better than FPTP because 'wasted' votes no longer apply, you have a first and a second preference.....this means that you might vote green instead of voting tactical against another party.


Wait, what?

AV is a little better than FPTP...

...but we should vote against it. Why? Here's the whole passage:

AV is a little better than FPTP because 'wasted' votes no longer apply, you have a first and a second preference.....this means that you might vote green instead of voting tactical against another party.

However unless a party wins over 50% of first and second preferences in a constituency it will fail to elect an MP. We can do this in Brighton though it will be a battle, I am not convinced that we are close to do it any where else in the UK.

With AV the German Greens would have found it impossible to win any seats in parliament.

AV can be seen as a means to prevent the growth of the Greens, if it is introduced it will make the system a little more democratic reducing the pressure for change in a very undemocratic system and if the referendum fails to introduce it will be said that voters are happy with first past the post.

I suspect it is more dangerous for the Green Party and democracy if AV is introduced.

So: more democracy is bad, because it would be to one particular party's disadvantage. (Incidentally, I'm citing this passage the next time Sam Coates says it's not fair for me to compare the England & Wales Greens with the German Greens.)

This is just shameful. We've all known for years that the Big Three Parties took opportunistic positions in election policy: the Lib Dems favoured PR because it would mean huge gains for them, but stopped fighting quite so hard for it as soon as they got into government. Labour flirted with PR in the 90s and then abandoned it when they won a huge majority in the 1997 election. The Tories oppose PR and AV because they take advantage of being a contiguous right bloc while the not-the-Tories vote is mostly split between Labour and the Lib Dems. Policies fit to shift circumstances, and the great bourgeois dance continues.

But the Greens got their MP — and I'll say they earned it in Brighton Pavilion, through years of work and building up a base — by selling themselves as distinctly and clearly different from the Big Three. Certainly that's the pitch they made to disaffected Lib Dem voters mere days after the General Election. Can Greens, who spent thirty-seven years building up before they had an MP, who spent years in the political wilderness, really be this cynical as soon as they've tasted the first drop of Westminster's nectar?

Well, yes. Apparently.

I won't dwell on this instance of opportunism further. Rather I'll note here the defective logic that Derek Wall seems to be applying.

First: if a party has only been building support in one constituency to win a majority of votes, concentrating resources in that constituency at the expense of others, it is not the system's fault that people in the rest of the country don't vote for it. I've noted before that the Greens seem occasionally to feel entitled to the left vote, so I'll reiterate: no party is, merely by existing, automatically entitled to anyone's vote. We know this all too well in campaigning for TUSC and if Greens are already forgetting the lessons of their own quarter-century in the electoral wilderness, then the Green Party's hazy dissolution into yet another anti-worker, pro-cuts party like the Irish Greens or the German Greens or even the Mexican Greens will come all the sooner.

Second: the public comes first, always. If a party cannot adapt to changes in the electoral system — in particular, if a party claiming to be on the left cannot find a way to be more successful in a system that is more democratic — then that party is deeply flawed on an institutional level, failing in its own structures; and if that party feels it is better to deny a greater amount of democracy to the voters than to look into itself and repair those institutions, it is putting itself first and the voter second and therefore deserves nobody's vote.

Third: Saying a vote for AV might sap the impetus for PR may perhaps be true; but what will a vote against AV accomplish? If the referendum passes, the government will say "we have fulfilled our mandate" and do nothing else to change the voting system for years; and if the referendum fails, the government will do exactly the same thing, except they will be able to excuse themselves afterward by saying the voters didn't even want the scraps on offer. Failure to use the tool of the referendum, while we have it in hand, is sheer foolishness.

Fourth: the growth of one's own party is not necessarily equivalent with the growth of democracy. Even if the working class has the best workers' party to hand, and the Greens are not a workers' party, democracy will not build simply through increased membership or higher vote counts; it will build through action, through workers exercising their power and using it to build more power, shifting the balance of power in society toward themselves. If a party assumes that just because it is getting votes means its work is done, it has greatly misled its supporters and itself.

Fifth: There is not a huge amount of difference between having one MP and having no MPs. How much difference did George Galloway, Peter Law or, for that matter, Richard Taylor make? Respect and People's Voice both tried to increase their number of MPs and failed to do so; both they and Caroline Lucas won their seats in part due to special circumstances where the big party (Labour in three of the four cases) had failed to put forward an acceptable set of positions. I will grant that Lucas's election is exceptional in that Law, Galloway and Taylor had all been sitting MPs who broke with their parties. But if Caroline Lucas loses her seat, whether under FPTP or under AV, in the next election I will not be surprised — and if AV passes and the Greens blame their loss Brighton Pavilion on it, it will be an act of intellectual dishonesty. Either the Greens are riding a wave of structural change in British parliamentary politics which makes room for a fourth big party, in which case AV would only be a speed bump anyway; or Lucas's election is due to special circumstances, in which case AV is irrelevant.

I'll summarise my points above in what I have come to feel is a principle: The solution to a problem of democracy is never less democracy. If institutions cannot rise to the political challenges of an open system, those institutions should be cast away and better ones forged. If people are overwhelmed by the difficulties of an open system, then those people need to be educated by their comrades. Contraction of democracy should only be undertaken, if ever, only when democracy in its present form cannot be maintained; and the endeavour should always be to extend it.

So if you will vote, I hope it will be in favor of AV. While AV is flawed, it is an improvement, and improvements are springboards to greater improvements. I know the Socialist Party remains committed to proportional representation and to the advancement of the liberation of the workers, no matter how much larger parties may waver; when the campaign on the referendum begins, I hope to see TUSC banners flying in favor of more democracy, not the status quo.

With the alternative vote in hand, we can push forward, to proportional representation, and proportional representation will solve all our problems of democracy. Right?

Next post: "Changing the wrong system II: no, PR won't solve all our bloody problems"


Rich said...

I think I know one Lib Dem who thinks AV is better than some form of STV. The rest of us still want STV. I wouldn't say we've abandoned our commitment to PR, just when the two biggest parties are either actively against the idea, or are only in favour of AV when it suits them, getting reform is damn hard.

Derek Wall seems to be mixing up AV with SV (Supplementary Vote), as in AV you get as many preferences as you have candidates. SV is what the london mayoral election uses, and it does reinforce the top two party syndrome. AV should help the greens theoretically as they'd get first preferences from people who otherwise wouldn't bother as they'd think they're just wasting their vote, as both big parties constantly say (and the Lib Dems in seats where we're in with a chance to win unfortunately). The big parties will still get the most seats under AV, as unless things change they'd still get the most votes, but it'll benefit the smaller parties, with increasing benefit over time as people realise that they can actually vote for that third party without fear their vote doesn't 'count'.

AV isn't the system I want, but it's an improvement. Hopefully all of those who want electoral reform, whatever our political leanings, can work together to deliver this, and not just complain like the Greens you've pointed out. Assuming victory in the referendum, further reform will hopefully be a big part of the next general election campaign. I know the Lib Dems will keep pushing, but it'll take more than us. Refusing a chance for some reform of the mechanics of voting when the situation has barely moved since the last Liberal government tried bringing in STV means we'll just return to the swinging Labour-Tory governments.

Edmund said...

I think there is some confusion within the Greens over what AV is. The Greens do specifically reject "Supplementary Vote as a matter of policy and at one point referred to AV as additional vote".

They have however considered AV as a system at their party conferences; I don't know whether or not they ever adopted it as their party constitution is reserved for members only.

Rich said...

I've found a lot of people get confused over the different systems of voting, thanks either to bad journalism or bad politicians making things up about what PR would mean. The idea that because x system of PR isn't perfect, we should stick with a system that's far inferior makes no sense to me.

Odd the Greens don't have their constitution open and available. What reason is there to keep something like that hidden away?