Monday, 18 April 2011

Tyranny of the minority: A vote for AV is a vote for democracy

For those that want a more democratic Britain, a vote for the Alternative Vote on 5th May is the only option

The campaign for the Alternative Vote has continued to sink into the mire in recent days, becoming bogged down in disputes over funding and personality clashes.  As Paddy Ashdown points out, its mudslinging at its worst, attempting to distort the real debate that should be taking place.  Electoral reform is a hugely important issue that should arguably have been passed without referendum; it’s about making politics fair.  Britain has a long way to go in this area; from the monarchy to the House of Lords; AV represents another small step along the path.

The motivation to mudsling is obvious; the Alternative Vote is indisputably more democratic than the current First Past the Post system (FPTP).  Despite this, the ‘yes’ campaign have struggled to get this deceptively simple message across, instead focussing on ‘clearing up’ politics and other appears to the ire of the public in the wake of the expenses scandal.  

The ‘no’ campaign have resorted to scaremongering and smear as their arguments for FPTP cannot withstand vigorous examination.  Before considering why they are so weak, it’s important to point out the virtues of AV as an improvement on FPTP, but also note that it is far from a panacea to the ills of democracy in Britain.

The classic justification for representative democracy (whereby you elect someone to make decisions on your behalf) over other forms of government (such as dictatorship) is that it is the least worst system.  Democracy as we know it is imperfect, the best of a bad bunch as it necessitates the ‘tyranny of the majority’.  Simply, a majority of people impose their views and or beliefs on the remaining minority.  It’s an unavoidable and undesirable consequence; in a perfect pluralistic world everyone’s viewpoint and beliefs would be acknowledged and implemented.  Practically, this just doesn’t work.  But most can agree that majority rules is probably the best system available, utilised as it is in homes, playgrounds and workplaces on a daily basis across the Western world.

Sadly, FPTP actually helps to deliver a ‘tyranny of the minority’, a situation whereby a minority impose their views and beliefs on the remaining majority.  Minority rule is clearly not the best of a bad bunch.  The Labour landslide of 1997 was achieved with 43% of the popular vote; therefore 57% - a clear majority – did not vote for Labour but were saddled with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for thirteen years. 

Under FPTP only one vote per person is counted, so more often than not where there is a plurality of candidates the vote is split so that no one person receives over 50% of the votes in any one constituency.  Therefore, the candidate with the largest minority wins, the overall majority lose. 

AV changes this; by counting second (and third, and fourth etc) preferences it ensures that over 50% of the electorate – a majority - have had a say in the result.  Their ‘say’ may be a second or third preference vote, but it is still influence over the result and some form of endorsement for the winner.  Admittedly this is not a perfect system or as fair as Proportional Representation (PR), but it’s certainly fairer than FPTP.

FPTP is an outdated system that is designed for elections in which the majority of individuals vote for two major parties.  That stopped happening in the UK from the 1980s onwards; where once 90% voted for Labour or Conservative now it’s just 65%.  It discriminates minority parties at a time when more and more choose to vote for them.  Some have derided Liberal Democrat support for electoral reform as mere self interest.  That may be the case but it is also true that a party that wins 20% of the popular vote should have 20% of the seats in parliament, not less than 10% as they currently do.  AV would not fix this anomaly entirely, but it would redress the balance at least partially.

One of the chief criticisms of AV is that it could deliver more hung parliaments and coalitions (this is a fallacy, FPTP has delivered several hung parliaments in the UK and more in Australia than AV has).  Somewhat comically, this has left David Cameron arguing against something he proclaimed barely a year ago to be positive.  The truth is, coalitions are often fairer as they consider a wider range of views; a majority of the UK voted for Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats.  Therefore a majority of the UK have been able to shape government.  And the idea that coalitions are unable to push through policy has been debunked by the success of Michael Gove’s potentially radical education policies, for example.

Supporters of FPTP also claim that cost should prevent us from implementing AV; we shouldn't switch to a system that costs more than the current one.  What they fail to point out is that having a dictator would be cheaper than FPTP, but that doesn't make it desirable. 

The other draw backs of FPTP include its ability to create MPs for life, who sit in safe seats with a comfortable largest minority.  Although AV won’t eliminate this situation, it will reduce the propensity for it to happen.  FPTP also creates an adversarial dynamic in British politics which at worst precludes and at best discourages multilateral approaches to policy.  AV will at least encourage candidates to consider the views of their opposition’s supporters in the hope of collecting second preferences.  Therefore policy will hopefully be more nuanced and considered and require robust justification.

The history of constitutional and electoral reform in Britain stretches as far back as the Magna Carta and has been a journey of incremental change for the best part of a thousand years.  The Alternate Vote is far from perfect, but it is another small improvement and a further step toward a fairer way of conducting politics in Britain.  The AV referendum should be elevated above petty concerns of giving Nick Clegg or David Cameron a kicking; the consequences of the referendum will still be reverberating long after both of their careers have ended.

No comments:

Post a Comment