AV Referendum: Don’t vote – it only encourages them! #meh2av

Ballot BoxI hope you don’t vote in the AV referendum today.

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?

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  • joskipp

    I read this site regularly (being a friend of Mick’s) however I have never felt the need to comment as most articles are well written, thought provoking and intelligent. Today is different. Could you please tell me what your alternative to the referendum is? You are encouraging people not to vote at all in the referendum, ensuring they continue to feel disenfranchised and out of touch with politics. You also give reasons that are outside the question of FPTP or AV for people to vote no to it.

    I know politicians are corrupt and they lie and lie and lie but the only way forward is to extend our democracy albeit with tiny baby steps like today. Encouraging people not to vote would seem to confirm that you are actually no better than the politicians themselves.

  • There are plenty of alternatives to a referendum in making a decision. 99.9% of legislation is made without one. At the top of this article I linked to a post outlining why referendums were a less-good way of making decisions than those made by elected representatives.

    This vote (the fact that we’re having it, and the outcome – either outcome) will not extend our democracy at all. How will it do so? It will result in an unrepresentative minority imposing a decision on the rest of us and then the result will be framed by an unaccountable press into something that it isn’t. Many of those voting will be expressing a view on a question that they haven’t been asked in the first place.

    There are plenty of inclusive deliberative processes that you can use to legitimise decisions if you choose not to make them through Parliament. I understand the argument that the one thing Parliament shouldn’t vote on is the system of voting that elects it – declared interests and all of that. So lets use one of these processes. Citizens juries, athenian democracy, demand-revealing referendums – all alternatives to a highly framed question where a binary choice is offered but where a proportional system isn’t.

    In being asked to take part in this vote, we’re being treated as idiots and patsys. If you want to vote in such a plebiscite, I’m not stopping you. I’d just suggest that you stop yourself.

  • DC

    I think Paul’s argument above lacks coherence.

    It seems the gist is more to do with politicians not really being effective agents of change, rather than the issue of representation which is behind the Yes vote to AV.

    I also detect the primacy of economics coming through in Paul’s post, which I agree with myself that all the big corporate powers gathering around the politicians and buying them off one way or another kills off democracy. The potency of elections as a means to change things is greatly reduced, regardless of direct democracy or better representation.

  • AGlassOfHine

    Sour grapes. Labour/Liberal Luvvies trounced again.

    AV would give us nothing but continuous coalition Government forever,with The Liberals holding sway.
    The people have spoken.

  • Johnny Boy

    Politicians campaigning on a referendum for electoral change was always going to be a disaster. Self-interest\Party-interest is the main motivating factor for them, and as they say, turkeys aren’t going to vote for Christmas.

    Personally, I voted yes, as I would hope a move to AV would be a first small step in more wider electoral reform for Westminster elections.

  • joskipp

    Paul – I do agree with you regarding the influence of big business on politics and that it is in fact in the driving seat, I do however disagree regarding the referendum.
    Having now read in detail both your articles, I still struggle with your advice to not vote. We will not be offered anything else. This referendum was a token given to the Liberal Party to sway their decision to form a coalition, we all know that, but you are talking in idealogical terms of how government should consult, whereas back in the land of the living…this is all we have.
    I will vote and hope many other people do. Apathy is one of the largest enemies of democracy.

  • DC: I’ve not seen much to suggest that AV will address “the issue of representation which is behind the Yes vote to AV.” The Yes2AV campaign focussed on an anti-politics argument that I don’t buy.

    If I were to concede that there may be marginal benefits I’d still ask why are we co-operating with a project that expressly excludes options that would improve it a great deal more? The fact that this is being agreed by referendum means that we *can’t* have the outcome that a more deliberative process would give us. I’m amazed at how relaxed people are about this travesty.

    If you don’t agree with this argument, maybe you will once the results are in?

    @joskipp I’d argue that it’s a great deal more apathetic to go along with this farcical exercise without challenging it. Putting a cross in a box is hardly activism, is it?

    @AGlassOfHine Thanks for reading the post before commenting. Oh wait… you haven’t. Why sour grapes? I’m agnostic on AV v FPTP debate. BTW, the jury is out on whether AV WILL result in more coalition government anyway – I think we’ve established that claims from the No campaign don’t bear much examination. John Curtice has argued that it it’s not a foregone conclusion and he’s probably the most authoritative commentator on this particular issue.

  • Sorry – should have included this link: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/2011/02/18/av-does-not-necessarily-produce-coalitions-and-may-not-help-smaller-parties/

    Can’t find John Curtice’s view on this quickly but I know that he made the point on TV.

  • joskipp

    I didn’t realise you were seeing me as an activist!?

    By not voting in the referendum, there will not be a sudden change of heart by the government and a new referendum with the questions you/I wanted asked, it will just pass on by.

    The way I see it is this – if I was cooking pasta and I wanted to use penne but I didn’t have any but I did have spaghetti, I’d use the spaghetti – it’s not what I wanted ideally but it is what I have to work with.

  • It was a rigged question. I wouldn’t respond to a rigged question.

    Reminds me of that scene in ‘No Country for Old Men’ when the killer forces the shopkeeper to call the toss of a coin. Why should anyone answer a question that they don’t want to be asked.

    If I were to concede that referendums are a legitimate way of asking for the public’s settled view on something (and I don’t) I’d want to be asked which voting system I’d prefer and not have only two barely-different options.

    And the Lib-Dems – we’ve seen how deep their understanding and concern for democratic reform is from three things here.

    Firstly, they were prepared to allow this question to be decided in a very anti-democratic manner
    Secondly, they were prepared to go along with a rigged question that didn’t include the options that even *they* wanted on the ballot
    Thirdly, they went into a campaign that they were certain to lose (if they’d ever thought about referendums, they’d know that this one was hopeless) in a way that will be allowed to rule out their central political demand for a generation.

    John Stuart Mill described the Tories as ‘The Stupid Party’. I suspect he’d find a better candidate for that title if he were around today.

  • I left a comment on your own blog and Blogger scoffed it! It had to do with not knowing what the Lib Dems are playing at either.

    On referendums, as you know I more or less agree with you although I think you overstate the case. Like it or not, a convention has developed where ‘constitutional’ issues are decided like this. Of course the question is rigged. Again we agree this is intrinsic to the exercise. But I don’t think abstaining is the thing to do because how will your not voting be distinguished from the ‘can’t be arsed’ or the ‘too drunk to make it to the polling booth’ constituency? Voting ‘No’ is a better way of registering your disapproval of the process, I would have thought. It makes it less likely that such an exercise will be repeated in the near future…

  • Hmm – “overstate the case.” I think that the slide into populism that’s biting a lot of places within the the EU is a potential catastrophe that is being ignored – maybe I’m wrong there, in which case you’re right.

    The way out of it is for people to make a positive case for the right kind of participative and deliberative democratic innovations.

    I don’t think the public will continue to buy the once-every-five-years democratic settlement any more and they have raised expectations of interactivity that are met in other aspects of their lives.

    So we’re going to be asked what policies government should be following more. Alongside the positive case, referendums highlight very real dangers that could become a much more regular phenomenon.

    Attacking referendums is an important part of that.

    On your ‘vote no to send the message’, it will only forestall ANY future votes on voting systems.