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Friday, February 18, 2011

Alternative voting requires alternative thinking

The referendum in May inviting us to opt for proportional representation in the form of the Alternative Vote throws up more questions than any change to the voting system could possibly answer. The campaign for electoral reform, however well-intentioned, has become increasingly reliant  on, and hence subservient to, attempting to satisfy popular concepts of democracy predicated on what is clearly fallacy; a belief that it is possible to please all of the people all of the time (especially Me). Pursuing this, while it may please a few people briefly, in the not-too-long run, will satisfy nobody, ever. Even-handed, granted, but hardly a great leap forward.

There is an excuse - reason is another matter entirely - for this. We live in an age when our concern for the good of wider society generally sustains no further than the point at which it encroaches on our own increasingly sharply-defined and generally selfish aspirations. The electoral reformers, rather than addressing this pandemic of myopia through focusing on the jobs they were imperfectly elected to do, have given up on any efforts to tackle it, even though this is supposedly why-I-entered-politics. 

There is only one useful arrangement for carts and horses. Replacing a simple and widely understood voting system, particularly for such brazen political expedience, without acknowledging the absurdity in promising everybody bespoke political representation is worse than futile and does nothing to advance the cause of democracy. It demonstrates a lack of understanding of what democracy can possibly achieve which, at best, is pleasing most of the people most of the time (most people I know claim to believe this.) For any difference it might make, we might as well base the franchise on candidates' body-mass index, with those nearest their optimum figure winning. Even with shiny new go-faster wheels, the hand-cart is still headed in one direction only. 

Leaving aside the possibility that we could end up in an inversion of democracy, governed by default by people nobody really wanted, with single issue groups and obnoxious micro-parties like the B.N.P.  holding balances of power and the issue of timing which, despite the Coalition’s wounded protestations, seems more designed to eclipse the Scottish and Welsh elections than to save money, the debate to date has taken absolutely no consideration of  the endemically partisan nature of British party  politics.  
Of course, the argument runs that this long-overdue remedial process is exactly what A.V. will help bring about, but even cursory reference to history tends to render this more hope than serious expectation. It would require changes in attitude in politicians and voters alike that can only take generations to come about. The fouled atmosphere of British politics today suggests that we'd simply become even more mired in what is already a deep bog of petty party point-scoring while each party did its damnedest to make sure an increasingly anaesthetised electorate – the ones who actually bothered to vote - ticked only one name. Extrapolating previous election results is, at best, pointless. Wilfully disingenuous is probably nearer the mark.  
On 95% of issues it is hard to put a cigarette paper between the stated objectives of the main parties. Most significantly, not one party has even dared to question the necessity in slavishly indulging an unelected and bloated financial sector and allowing it to dictate pretty well all terms of reference when it comes to how society should manage itself, leaving any government pretty well hog-tied in what it can and can’t do: this while most electoral reformers, in an affront to irony, vociferously believe that the House of Lords is an affront to democracy. (We can return to this later.)
Despite this, each party attempts to distinguish itself from the rest by vehemently disagreeing with each other, even on matters they are quite clearly at one on. The relative position of deckchairs on a sinking cruise ship is about the nearest we get to meaningful debate. In a poor attempt to disguise this creeping homogeneity, this purblind charge down the road to a one party state, they accentuate minor variations on a theme by bombarding us with utterly insignificant issues, letting tabloid-schooled press officers spoon-feed a media echo chamber to create an illusion of fevered debate and thoughtful discourse. 
A recent example (which is all we can handle) would be the non-privatisation of England’s forests, something that would have made not one whit of a difference to the economy, and for most people in England – noisy celebrities and Shire types are not most people (that's democracy for you) - would have been undetectable in its impact on their lives, especially today. David Cameron will not have lost sleep over the U-turn – and in any case, a disposable junior minister took the rap - but this was paraded with full-on pomp as a deeply considered concession to the will of the people. As if, as they say.
Until a sea change in our demands and expectations of governance comes about, this tribalism will infect any voting system we choose. Asking people to list their preferences will achieve less than nothing: it would be giving into our worst instincts. I usually know who I am going to vote for and the alternatives wouldn’t even come 8th, 9th and 10th, let alone 2nd, 3rd and 4th. Most, if they are honest, will admit to feeling and behaving the same way. We are creatures of habit (see above.) I find it as hard to imagine many people marking Labour and Tory candidates on the same ballot paper as I can somebody arriving at Ibrox or Parkhead waving the Union Flag, garbed in green and white hoops. Such a tiny minority must be either weird  or incapable of making their minds up and therefore have no business interfering in democracy. Before we waste time and energy changing the method with which we elect governments, we have to do some serious growing up and decide what it is we want governments to do. 

As for the chief protagonists for voting reform, they should perhaps be careful what they wish for and take careful note of the fact that coming last in an F.P.T.P. system seems to have delivered the only thing they ever seemed to want: office. All indications are that their present Westminster contingent of 57 flatters any notions of popularity they might harbour . P.R. could very easily turn against them. Well. Maybe it’s a good idea after all.


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