Yes, I am voting No….
The Economist would vote No were it enfranchised on 5 May. I am inclined to vote the same way, albeit for rather different reasons. The Economist says it is in favour of an element of proportional representation (PR) within our elected systems, with the remainder being the mis-named first past the post (FPTP). I don’t like PR. I think it accepts and enforces the de facto status quo and doesn’t address the real underlying problems with our electoral system. So while The Economist rejects the alternative vote (AV) system because it is not like its favoured 20% PR (I don’t understand how this would work), I reject AV because it is irrelevant to the actual problems in our politics and would, I suspect, reduce the likelihood of us ever getting a Parliament that I would be happy with.
So what is the status quo? Do we vote for politicians who, when elected, become our representatives in Parliament? No, in fact. We vote for the representatives of political parties who are standing for election in our constituency. Then, when they are returned to Parliament, they toe their party line except for the exceptional few in exceptional circumstances. It doesn’t matter how you elect such representatives of political parties – PR, AV or FPTP, they will still represent the interests of their party in your constituency more than they represent the interests of your constituency in Parliament. So with constituency elections, all votes are strategic no matter what the system – we’ll just learn how to be strategic under AV too, if and when it is introduced.
Many MPs, once elected, represent many of their constituents fairly well at an individual level, through surgeries and their capacity (sometimes) to cut through the blank face of the bureaucratic establishment. But they should be able to do more than this – they should be representing the interests of their constituency in the process of enacting legislation, and this should mean being able to vote against their party hierarchy if the outcome was not predicted to be in the interests of their particular constituency.
Of course, an individual MP’s judgment of what is in their constituents’ best interests will be coloured by their political ideology and background. This is why political parties are always going to be useful – they are a short-hand to let voters know the basic political principles by which candidates will judge problems and potential solutions. But MPs should not be tied to their political party’s centralised policies if those policies would run against the constituency’s interests.
I would dearly love to see more independent MPs in Parliament – independent whether of political parties or within political parties. I believe Parliament’s role should be to identify problems relevant to the political estate, to propose viable political solutions to those problems, to debate the nature of the problem and the predicted efficacy of the solutions, and then to decide on a favoured solution that is in the interests of most people. And then everyone should work to try and ensure that the solution works. The NHS would never have got off the ground if, having been introduced by one administration, it was radically altered or kiboshed by the next, then reintroduced by the next, and so on ad infinitum. For 40 years, all parties worked from the concepts embodied in the welfare state from 1948. Until the 90s when New Labour introduced internal markets and the 00s when public-private partnerships were seen as the way forward and then the 10s when Andrew Lansley was allowed to introduce non-top down, but totally top down, reforms that no one else seems to understand, let alone support.
With more independent MPs, or the removal of the legitimacy of the whips, for example, more emphasis would fall on discussion and debate: actually spending time identifying issues, dissecting them and understanding them – in national and local terms – before proposing solutions that could, in turn, be debated and scrutinised, and legislation introduced to enact the solutions and monitor progress. Some people might say this would slow Government down. I don’t see that as a problem. Too much of recent governing has meant introducing legislation that is not thought through, not broadly supported, or that is actually insupportable by the other major political blocs and will not, therefore, survive the first change of Government. And woe betide the politician who attempts to identify a solution without proposing a hard and fast solution that is resistant to modification. This is the situation that leads us to Lansley’s reforms of the NHS – he cannot afford to give anyone any time to think about what he is saying: if he does, his policies may be scrutinised and, possibly entirely legitimately, criticised and for his plans to be criticised would lead him on a path to political death. This is ridiculous. It means our politicians feel compelled to introduce legislation to solve a problem that they define only seconds before advancing their solution as the only possible solution. Where is the debate here? Where is the opportunity for our best political minds to engage with each other, thrash out the issues and develop plans that are broadly supported by the nation as a whole?
So that’s the problem as I see it. What of the solution we are being asked to consider on 5 May?
Some say that AV is intrinsically fairer than FPTP. I don’t know. What does that mean, anyway – ‘fair’? I don’t really believe that voting can ever be ‘fair’. Elections don’t give you the opportunity to change anyone’s mind. And does your vote really only count if you have voted for the winner (at some point in the ranking process)? Under FPTP, all votes are counted and if we all voted for the person we’d most like to represent us, we’d have a pretty fair idea of who was the most popular. You’re in a true blue Tory constituency but you want to vote Green? Then face it: you’re in the minority. Vote Green and lose. Don’t like it? Move. Or, more productively, join the Green Party, make their case and try to persuade your fellow constituents that you’re right. Oh but that’s too much like hard work, isn’t it? Why doesn’t everyone just agree with you without you having to try…?
If politics were more about persuasion, this would be a genuine course of action. But I don’t think AV (or PR) will bring about more discussion. I think it closes it down. PR actively promotes the idea that political parties are the be all and end all of our political system – that political parties are the only way anything gets done. What happens to votes for independents under PR? They do not get proportionally represented because they are not an identifiable bloc. PR accepts the status quo that MPs represent parties in constituencies and says: well, we all vote like that anyway, so let’s accept it and do the best with it. Well if that’s what you want, do away with constituencies and just vote for a Government. Who needs MPs whose only purpose is to make up the numbers? Just vote for a party, whose leader becomes PM and they can appoint whomever they like to join them in the executive. Linking national political party support to Parliamentary representatives is perverse. So if you don’t like the constraints of a constituency-based representative democracy, then PR ain’t gonna fix that and neither is AV.
AV is more subtle than PR, in a way. The Yes campaign suggests MPs will be elected with at least 50% of a constituency’s support and that this somehow makes them more accountable to the voters. I don’t accept that but my main concern with AV is bigger than that – I think AV will favour the political party machines. I think people are more likely to put Labour, Conservative or LibDem candidates as their second and third choices than candidates from smaller parties or from no party. Which means, after the second, third or fourth round, we’ll just end up with the usual suspects in Parliament. As described above, I don’t like this approach to Parliamentary democracy and it is basically for this reason that I will be voting against AV.
AV and PR promote big political parties. I want to see more collaborative Government. I don’t care if that’s coalitions or minority Governments or even majority Governments but with independently-minded backbenchers and, God forbid, ministers. I would like to see more fluid coalitions within Parliament – MPs consulting with their constituents on issues as well as with their party leaders and developing an opinion, whether that’s in line with or contrary to their party line. Then those who agree come together to argue their position. And so issues get debated properly rather than according to party politics, which largely disregards the real issues at stake as long as you score some points against your opponent.
So don’t think I am happy with the status quo or that I am a dinosaur who fears change. I just sincerely do not believe that AV would improve our politics and equally I do not believe that AV is a step towards some bigger reform that I would be happier with. Fundamentally, elections do not necessarily mean democracy in my book. Yes, there should be some electoral aspect to any democracy, but it is not sufficient; it is facile to think that electing every element of the political system makes it fairer or more accountable than having a mix of approaches. For example, I cannot see the point of an elected House of Lords. It would duplicate the political shenanigans of the Commons to no particular purpose.
I mean, please do away with hereditary and ex officio (ie the Lords spiritual) peers, yes, but I actually really like the idea of appointing people who have succeeded in British society to a position of oversight of the British political system. From the worlds of business, science, law, medicine, entertainment, politics, sport, public service, the military: people who are acknowledged to have been successful in our society have as good a perspective on our society as anyone else that we might elect (and if we elect them, they will definitely be limited to only those who are successful in politics (possibly those who are successful only in politics), and that does not appeal to me).
So elections are but one part of our democracy. I believe we should concentrate on reinvigorating the representative role that our MPs are supposed to fulfil rather than meekly accepting that power lies only with the major political parties and handing them a voting system that favours their candidates. Roll on the independents, I say, and change the system to give them more say and more sway in Parliament. AV is not going to deliver that change.