A while ago, I posted a general criticism on the use of referendums. As I put it then, using a referendum to choose an electoral system is like using trial-by-combat to pick the winner of a peace prize.
The conduct of the AV campaign has vindicated the strongest of these criticisms – and then some.
We will be told over the next few days that a No verdict (a certainty, if pollsters are to be beleived) will make further electoral reform in the near future almost impossible because the public will have given their verdict on the subject.
Only a simpleton could conclude that we will know the settled will of the British people on their electoral system from this result. This will not stop a profoundly dishonest No campaign and it’s stooges in the press from repeating the observation often enough over the coming weeks for it to become a perceived fact.
What will we be able to conclude from the outcome? Firstly, we’ll know that most people don’t know what they want or don’t care strongly enough to express a view either way. We’ll know that we know nothing about the public’s preference for a more proportional system because we’re not being offered one here. We’ll know that this question has been unanswered (and will remained unanswered as long as the question can only be framed in a referendum).
We’ll know that many of the politicians who campaigned were not concerned with the principle of how we should elect politicians in order to motivate them to serve the public interest most effectively. In many cases, the only issue worth considering was this: Which outcome will deliver the best short-term electoral advantage for me.
Living in London, I don’t have any other reason to go to the polling station today. My neigbours will be under-represented in this farcical poll because of this. We’ll know that many of those who did get to the polling station used their vote to send an unrelated message to someone. We’ll know, for example, that a lot of people have taken the opportunity to contradict Nick Clegg in his view that he’s not a ‘human punchbag’. Some of my Labour friends have pointed out that a flat-out defeat for the AV campaign will cause all kinds of mischief within The Coalition.
But leaving aside these very-good reasons to vote No, the campaign has been marked by shrill overstatement of the arguments. It’s been a campaign of dishonesty, misdirection and personalisation – all of the hallmarks of single-issue campaigning. The limp anti-politics response (“make politicians work harder”) from the Yes-camp just underscored the truth here; that this is a baby-step – hardly worth bothering about in the first place. They’ve been unable to excite any passion in the voters because there’s no material to work with in this ‘miserable little compromise‘. Fearmongers will always win these arguments.
At a time when people are dying in Syria for the right to vote, I’ll concede that a ‘don’t vote’ message may appear self-indulgent – whatever your views on AV. Generally, I’d argue that we do have a moral duty to either vote, stand for election or STFU about the shortcomings of an elected government. That’s an argument for another day though: When we participate in referendums, we don’t take part in a process that advances democracy – we take part in a direct-democracy process that debases it – as the experience in California has illustrated all too well.
So what can we conclude? There’s plainly a bloc – numbered in the thousands – of people who would describe themselves as being of liberal and democratic persuasions – who were prepared to put elbow-grease into this doomed project. By their choice to focus on this – and not the many other shortcomings of the current model of liberal democracy- we may conclude that they beleive that the voting system is it’s biggest flaw. Many of them didn’t understand enough about what liberal democracy is to know that accepting the offer of this referendum would be a huge counterproductive distraction to the question of ‘what can we do to make democracy better?’
There’s plenty of flaws in our liberal democracy. In Northern Ireland, it really doesn’t matter who you vote for – the government always gets in. Elsewhere, we have a politics that is characterised by large-scale disenfranchisement of most voters – not by the voting system, but by the power of single-issue lobbies, pressure groups and media interests – all of whom can outcompete the people we elect in Westminster and elsewhere. We have an executive that can ignore Parliament a lot of the time and a second chamber that in almost entirely unaccountable. We have a new government that wants to further undermine the represenatative and deliberative demoracy by creating elected police cheifs and promoting local referendums on all sorts of issues.
Most of these failings stem from a drift towards a more direct democracy – something that seems to have eluded most of the ‘Yes’ camp despite their claims to be the standard-bearers for democratic renewal. Over the next year or so, pro-AV Liberal Democrats will vote through direct democracy legislation, FFS! Hopefully, they will be able to get their heads together after this fiasco and learn a few basic lessons about liberal democracy. Lessons that would have told them where their focus should really be. Lessons that would include this one: Don’t participate in a doomed referendum on AV in the first place.
In the meantime, the more interesting (to me) question is this: If there’s any truth in Lord Adonis’ claim (behind The Times paywall, sadly) that Brown offered a much better deal on PR, how will Clegg square his party in the vengeful mood that will now befall them?