Tuesday, April 19, 2011

GUEST POST AV, politicians and the wasted vote

Chris Slowe is an activist with Fairer Votes Leicester and Leicestershire.

I got involved in the campaign for the Alternative Vote a few months ago because there were two main things that didn’t seem to make sense about our democracy:

  1. The government has to represent the will of the people not that of the politicians. No matter the size of the protest they seemed to ultimately do what they wanted, dismissing us with “They can express it at the ballot box.”
  2. People should be able to vote for who they want, not tactically. I grew up in a safe seat and voted for who I wanted. But as I did so there were mutterings of “it’ll just be a wasted vote.”
Down on our shonky city centre stall every Saturday you meet some people who talk to you about the issues. And you get others who are surprisingly rude. But you get many in between and most of what they say is almost word for word identical:
  1. Politicians are all the same - they’re only interested in themselves;
  2. Voting is pointless as it doesn’t make a difference anyway - unless you’re voting for the main two your votes are wasted.
Hmm. So it’s not just me then.

1. They’re only interested in themselves

OK, so I know that there are some politicians out there who are doing there best in difficult circumstances. But the days of even pretending to be principled have long gone. The canny ones, I suppose, argue that by selling us mediocrity they can at best deliver, and at least not set themselves up for a fall. “Principles are all well and good in theory, sonny”. But surely in a democracy the core principle, the freedom to vote for the candidate you want, is immutable?

Under First Past the Post it seems not. Technically you can of course vote for whoever you want but for many people this right is suppressed through the requirement to vote tactically to ‘keep the other lot out’.

The Tories have always liked FPTP. As long as the left are fractured into multiple parties the vote is split and the system tends to work in their favour.

Labour toyed with the idea of electoral reform with a referendum on PR in their 1997 manifesto. But after a landslide they’d be shooting themselves in the Michael to allow true proportionality. In fact I spoke to a Labour councilor in the street and he said outright that the party is split in support of AV because many see a No vote as minimalising the effect of smaller parties. With the Lib Dems likely to lose dramatic amounts of voters, all the gains go to Labour.

The Lib Dems have finally got their dream of electoral reform, all be it watered down. But they only want it to help themselves too, right? It’s true that in the past AV would have meant a gain of a few seats, but who would say that is possible now?

At the next election people are as equally unlikely to want to vote for the party that (at least) failed to stop us getting in to this mess, the party who killed our beloved institutions, or their ‘accomplices’.

If we don’t change the system:

Some of us will vote for who we really want knowing it’ll make no difference. Some of us will grudgingly vote against the worst, or for the least worse. Many of us will just give up.

2. Unless you vote for the main parties you’re wasting your vote

AV doesn’t mean, of course, that all of a sudden the Greens will be thrown in to government. Nor is it a proportional system- your vote won’t directly affect the balance of power at a national level - the extra influence is over your constituency. But it does mean that for the first time we will be able to see accurately what sort of politics people really want. This will have a profound affect as, even if not elected, the smaller parties will be buoyed by their gains and allow them to influence political discourse with votes behind them rather than unreliable polls.


Implied in many people’s attitude towards politicians is a lack of trust. They are seen as unprincipled. To the public politicians seem to be too eager to dismantle our liberties or sell off our rights. They tell us that they’re just being realistic- if we don’t want terrorists we have to give up some liberty; if we want to keep the NHS we must be able to afford it. Though of course politics should be enacted pragmatically, it should be directed by ideals- the foremost of which must be the representation of the interests of the public. Democracy is our tool to ensure that they are striking that balance correctly.

Thousands of people are protesting against the cuts and yet precisely at a time when they need their democratic power they’re being told by the establishment, and their media friends, to give it up.

When you put aside your party preferences and accept that democracy is a good idea, you are also accepting that people should be able to vote for who they want to, not against who they don’t want. For those thinking voting no will punish Nick Clegg you’re playing right into the hands of a two-party system and against the plural democracy we are increasingly voting for at the ballot box.

After this parliament when again will we have a chance to improve our voting system? We must take this opportunity and vote Yes in May or the mother of all parliaments will slip further and further away from democracy.


John Minard said...

I believe that Lord Bonkers will recall that a combination system of AV and STV was voted for by MPs in 1917. Unfortunately the House of Lords rejected it (5 times in all).

I would be interested in how Lord bonkers voted and if he considers Cameron, Reid and Co to be latter day 'backwoodsmen' from that Edwardian age beamed up to today to say "neigh!"

Jonathan Calder said...

I suspect that in 1917 Lord Bonkers was doing something Terribly Important in Russia.