Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Democratic Alternatives

May people find themselves a bit lost when it comes to politics. Awareness of this is a good start, of course, especially if you're being bombarded with arguments that seem convincing but you can't be sure of the facts behind them. Most people in the UK vote once every five years and do nothing intentionally political otherwise, so it can be hard to get up to speed when the big moment comes, even if you're genuinely interested and committed to getting it right.

This means that ordinary elections can present enough of a puzzle. Along comes something like the AV referendum and you're understandably flummoxed. Outside of political and academic circles, few people have previously given AV much thought. How does it work? I'm not going to go into that here, but I recommend you check out this site, put together by a statistician who knows his stuff - it's one of the very few politically neutral ones out there.

What I'm interested in looking at is the way this issue has been distorted and manipulated - the way that political self-interest from various groups has interfered with your right to receive the clear information on which you might make a decision. Chris Huhne, an advocate of the Yes campaign, is so incensed about this that he brought it up in Cabinet today and apparently caused quite a fuss - everyone though cabinet ministers talking back to the prime Minister had gone out with John Major. But of course it's not only the No campaign who have been up to mischief.

Let's get some facts straight from the start:-

AV will not cost 250M. This figure has been calculated by including the cost of the referendum, which we're paying for anyway.

AV will not lead to losers winning. In most cases it won't make any difference to the result. Where it does, it will simply prioritise candidates most people think are fairly good over candidates some people think are excellent but others loathe.

Voting for AV will not make a horse cry.

It is not better to be gunned down on a beach in Normandy than to live in a country with an FPTP voting system.

Voting for AV will not let in the BNP.

Voting against AV will not let in the BNP.

You do not have to choose between AV and the lives of children.

Dinosaurs are cool. Lay off dinosaurs.

Right, that's that out of the way. The question is, how have these lies been allowed to propagate? Most of them have done so insidiously, through the use of hint, suggestions and images that give us a certain impression - sometimes subconsciously - without overtly stating anything that isn't true. Some have come straight out and declared themselves. They may yet be subject to legal challenges, but by then, of course, the vote will be over and they will have done their job. Any fines will be trivial to the campaigners. Because this isn't a battle between political parties it's difficult to punish anyone effectively over the longer term.

Not a battle between parties? But wait! I hear you say. Isn't the No campaign funded almost exclusively by Conservative Party donors? Aren't the LibDems entirely pro-AV? Well, that's largely true, but the Labour Party is divided pretty neatly down the middle, and there are outliers in both camps. These actually provide the most interesting case studies. They are, after all, putting their political careers on the line. This is a fairly good guarantee that they actually believe what they're saying and are not just trying to rip you off. David Owen, for instance, is against AV despite his longstanding support for electoral reform (he wants a proportional system, which AV is not, but which it could arguably lead to). Tory activist John Strafford is pro-AV and has accused his party of stifling internal debate on the issue. You'll note the difference between their arguments, based on political reasoning, and the arguments of the official campaigns, based on appealing to the emotions.

One unpleasant tactic used by both campaigns is stigma. Each posits its favoured system as so irrefutably superior that only a really stupid person would fail to support it, and you don't want to be stupid, do you? Of course, the best way to be stupid is to allow yourself to be blindsided by this kind of tactic. A smart person always asks questions, especially when things are presented as obvious. Given that, it's depressing how successful this campaigning tactic seems to have been. Notably, it's most useful to whichever side of an argument is in the lead - in this case the No campaign - because most people are more confident that they've picked the smart side to be on if it's also the most popular. A smaller proportion of people will go the other way and feel happier siding with the underdog in this kind of case because it gives them a sense of being part of an intellectual elite. Something to bear in mind during this kind of debate is that this, in the end, is just a voting system, and whichever way you make your choice it won't make you Einstein. Don't give way to flattery or threats of humiliation - they're insincere or bullying and you as a voter deserve to be treated with more respect.

Given the context in which there is so little to lose, each side has boiled down its campaigning to the sort of shock headlines and sensationalism one might expect from the shoddiest of red top newspaper stories. It's like a distilled form of what journalism and marketing perpetually threaten to become, and it should function as a cautionary example for anyone who thinks we don't need press regulation or more effective media funding models. Exaggeration has reached a point where the truth is at best distorted if not completely lost. The result is something almost anti-democratic in nature, the antithesis of what a referendum ought to be about.

There is no point in having one person one vote (which, incidentally, is what happens under AV too) unless people are adequately educated and able to make informed decisions. Providing this education is the duty of the state. In this case, however, the state seems to have absented itself entirely, giving the impression that the larger party in government (a different thing entirely) is somehow fulfilling its role by defending the status quo. Of course the Conservative Party has a right to take a position on AV but it is important for voters to realise that there is no 'official' position, no state sanctioned proper way to vote. Tradition doesn't come into it. There is simply one system, or another system. Forget about the horses and the dinosaurs and the sick children.

So how should you vote? I'm not going to tell you to choose yes or no - you need to make the decision that's right for you. Don't be ashamed of voting in a self-interested way. That's your democratic right. If you're a Conservative supporter, it's perfectly reasonable to support a system (FPTP) that favours them. Likewise if you're uncomfortable with multi-party politics or you like the idea of strong leadership within parties, with MPs who stick to the party line. Alternatively, if you want to be able to vote for the party of your choice without 'wasting' your vote in a constituency where it isn't very popular - for instance, if you live in a Labour/Conservative marginal and want to vote LibDem but don't want to risk letting the Conservatives in - then AV may be for you. And as far as short term ramifications go, you can look at it like this: a vote against AV will hurt Nick Clegg whilst a vote for AV will hurt David Cameron (the coalition takes a boot up the arse either way but of course both parties have vowed it will carry on regardless).

Vote for what is best from your perspective. But please don't vote against AV because it seems too complicated, or for AV because some famous people said you should. Give yourself more credit than that. This isn't really very complicated and those who claim it is are only doing so to pull the wool over your eyes. This is your vote, and your democracy, and your choice.

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