Tuesday 26 April 2011

Why it is wrong to call for a NO vote on AV

In this article for Socialist Resistance, Alan Thornett challenges some of the left thinking on the AV referendum.

The Tory-led, and heavily funded, campaign for a NO vote in the AV referendum appears to be winning the contest hands down. Cameron, with a total commitment to the corrupt FPTP system, is whipping Tory voters (in particular) into line with a series of dire predictions and downright lies about the consequences of AV which bear no factual relationship to the issues at hand.
They are wiping the floor with the lack-lustre, under-organised, and gimmick-ridden campaign for a YES vote led by the Labour leadership and the Lib Dems. Whilst Lib Dems are strongly behind a YES vote Labour are divided on it from top to bottom. Much of the Labour Left is also for a NO vote.
Unfortunately most of the far left are also supporting the NO campaign. Yet if the NO campaign wins it will be seen as a thumping endorsement of the current FPTP system which delivered outrageously undemocratic election results throughout the 20th century in defense of the two party system and which, in the event of a NO vote, will be set to continue doing so for the foreseeable future — and with a referendum decision behind it.
Under FPTP in the last election the Tories won just 36% of the vote which gave them a much higher proportion of MPs. In 2005 Labour polled just 35.2% of the votes cast but for this they got 55.1% of the seats in Parliament – way above their proportional entitlement. The Tories polled 30.7% of the vote and 32.3% of the seats – just above their proportional entitlement. The Lib Dems polled 22.1% of the vote and all they got for this was just 9.6% of seats – less than half of their proportional entitlement.
This meant that it took 26000 votes to elect a Labour MP, 44000 to elect a Tory MP, and a huge 96000 to elect a Liberal Democrat MP – nearly four times as many votes as those needed by a Labour MP. Such a system is scandalous and indefensible even before you consider the way it stacks the odds against small parties.
It also meant that around 70% of voters cast votes which make no difference what-so-ever to the outcome since they were in safe seats of one kind or another and the election is won or lost in a minority of marginal seats.
The latest far left organisation to adopt a NO vote stance is the SWP — see SW of April 16. In doing so they have recycled some of the most vacuous justifications.
The first is that a NO vote will “deepen the rifts in the coalition”. This is not only the wrong approach but it is problematic as a prediction. Whichever way the vote goes it will cause a crisis in the coalition. Whilst a NO vote would precipitate a crisis for the Lib Dems a YES vote would be totally unacceptable to a swathe of mind-dead Tory MPs, who see FPTP as akin to a religion, and who would blame Cameron for getting them into it.
The issue of AV, however, should not be judged on the conjuctural effect of the referendum on the establishment parties but whether it is an improvement (even a very small one as in this case) over the existing system and\or does it have the propensity to open the door to further reform towards a proportionate system which would deliver fair votes: i.e. a Parliament where the number of MPs for each party directly reflect the votes polled by each party?
A a vote for change would show that change was possible and pose the issue of further change, particularly since the most of those supporting it would want to go further, while a vote for FPTP would retrench the existing system
The second argument SW advances is that voting in bourgeois elections is not that important anyway. “Having a vote is better than not having a vote” SW argues and goes on, “The capitalist class can live with political democracy—the election of parliaments and governments—because the decisive levers of power are outside parliament.”
This seriously misunderstands the importance of the electoral field to the calls struggle under capitalism and understates the right of the working class to democracy under a bourgeois-democratic system. Bourgeois democracy is not workers democracy of course but the struggle for a democratic voting system under capitalism is a part of the struggle for socialism. It also downplays the struggles historically for the universal franchise (the Chartists and the women’s suffrage movement) — which were about democracy under a bourgeois system.
In Britain in the 20th century there were periods which were effectively elected dictatorships based on huge majorities in Parliament, yet these majorities bore little relationship to the support the parties enjoyed amongst the electorate. It is not in the interests of working class for such a system to continue.
AV of course will not resolve that because it is not a proportional system but a vote of confidence in FPTP will not resolve it either. It could set back change for another generation.
The SW article argues that AV will not strengthen the left — but this is not true. It would at least allow voters to express their genuine preferences without the pressure to vote tactically and allows small parties to stand without fear of splitting the vote. It therefore benefits small parties as against FPTP at the constituency level. This does not mean it would be easier for small parties to get into Westminster, only PR can do that, but it would at least give small parties a more representative vote at constituency level which would increase their credibility in elections.
It would ensure that all MPs are elected on the basis of majority support (at present only a third of them achieve this and would undermine, least to some extent, the safe seats which FPTP provides for Labour and the Tories which disenfranchises swathes of voters at every election.
SW argues that: “Many European countries have more progressive voting systems than in Britain. Portugal has PR—but workers still face savage cuts.” Of course no one is arguing that the voting system can replace the class struggle. But it should be remembered that the left is strongly represented in the Portuguese parliament, including the far left, and that would not be the case under FPTP.
The SW article even uses the London mayoral election as a negative example of AV, arguing that it was still a contest between the two main parties. This may be true, given the electoral relationship of forces, but it least allowed the voters to vote both for their preferred candidate as well as voting against the worst main contender — which in this case was the Tories. FPTP would be far worse for the London mayoral elections.
The far left needs to think again on this issue.

Alan Thornett

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