Wednesday, April 20, 2011

'Alternative Vote' Referendum Fails To Grip Nation

Absurd 'no' propaganda from Clegg's coalition partners
With just over a fortnight to go before the referendum on the 'Alternative Vote' system for UK parliamentary elections, only about half of the population say they are 'certain' to express a preference. A low turnout seems inevitable, reflecting widespread disengagement from Westminster politics, and the 'choice' between three near-identical ruling class parties.

On Monday, spoof website News Thump published an article under the headline 'We're struggling to find a 1st choice, let alone a 2nd or 3rd, voters tell AV campaigners'. Like all good satire, this had a large element of truth to it. The political class is widely despised and distrusted - and rightly so. While the Conservatives have long held a reputation as a party of the rich, Labour thoroughly earned such a description under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, while the Lib Dems - long seen as a perpetual 'protest vote' during their opposition - are showing themselves to be loyal servants of the elite in their position of power.

So not many people care either way whether their dictators are elected via the traditional 'first past the post' system, or this new 'alternative vote' system. However, for followers of the Westminster soap opera, the referendum campaign is of some interest. It is the first major issue on which the coalition partners have expressed any significant differences, as was provided for in last May's coalition agreement. The Conservatives oppose Alternative Vote, whilst the Lib Dems wholeheartedly support it. For Labour, leader Ed Miliband is an enthusiastic advocate of AV, though the party in general seems divided.

The dispute is not one of lofty principle. Instead, it should be seen as politicians pursuing narrow self-interest - exactly the sort of behaviour that has made them so unpopular over the last decade in particular. The Lib Dems support AV because it would normally mean there were more Lib Dem MPs (both Labour and Conservative voters traditionally see Lib Dems as second best). The Conservatives fear a so-called 'progressive' coalition between Labour and AV-bolstered Lib Dems, and indeed this would almost certainly have happened if the system had been in place for the last election. Labour backed electoral reform before 1997, when Blair won a landslide majority and did not need Lib Dem support. They have been cool on it since then, and the current divisions within Labour can be attributed to trying to work out a route back to power in 2015.

Indeed, the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition has shaken the debate on voting reform, making some of the old arguments pro and con seem ridiculous. One 'No to AV' (i.e. Conservative) line of attack is that it could lead to the party in third place becoming kingmaker on a regular basis. An advert shows Labour, Tory and Lib Dem horses racing, with the third place Lib Dem being declared winner. But this sounds hollow because it's more or less what happened in 2010, when Nick Clegg's party decided to help the Conservatives into power. The coalition maintains this was a good thing for this parliament, but the Conservatives are implying it would be bad if it happened in the future! Naturally, this is because they believe Labour would be the beneficiaries.

'No' currently holds a 16-point lead according to an ICM poll, but a mass abstention on 5th May will be a giant vote of no-confidence in the political class. The task remains to build a true alternative, and real democracy, living and breathing in workplaces and neighbourhoods rather than cloistered away behind police lines in Westminster. This is an indispensible part of the class struggle.
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