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Why socialists should vote yes in the Alternative Vote referendum

The Alternative Vote (AV) system isn’t proportional, but it’s still an improvement on the rotten First Past the Post (FPTP) system, that’s why socialists should be campaigning for a critical ‘yes’ vote

The referendum on the AV system tells us a lot about the Clegg-Cameron Coalition. In return for the Liberal Democrats dropping their commitment to free education, accepting an historic programme of public service cuts, and much more besides, they got the AV referendum in return.

But even this was another sell out – they dropped their commitment to proportional representation in return for AV. A system of proportional representation is where the actual make up in parliament reflects the share of the vote for each party across the country.

The current FPTP system is the opposite – it’s a grossly disproportional system, which means parties normally have a majority in parliament with between 35 and 40 per cent of the vote. It also means the votes of millions of people who don’t vote for the MP who wins in their constituency are thrown away – they don’t contribute to the actual make up of seats in parliament.

But the Alternative Vote system doesn’t introduce the principle of proportionality. It still means that as many as 50 per cent of the votes in a constituency are ‘wasted’ – they still don’t contribute to the actual make up of seats in parliament. So it’s a fact we are being asked to choose between two systems that aren’t proportional – so, what should socialists say?

AV – what is it, what isn’t it?

AV introduces a preference system – you vote for one candidate first, then, if you want, you can vote for another candidate second preference. In the first round of counting if one candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the first preference votes, then they have won.

But if no candidate achieves this, then the last candidate is knocked out, their second preference votes redistributed, and the process continues with other candidates being knocked out, until such time as one candidate has more than 50 per cent.

This is a very minor change – to say the least. But that hasn’t stopped the campaign for a ‘no’ vote launching a hysterical tirade of lies and demagogy against the AV system.

From the leaderships of the unions, to over 100 Labour MPs, and the whole Tory party, the “No” campaign has argued AV abolishes the principle of ‘one person, one vote’.

They have even tried to take advantage with anger at the coalition government over cuts, to say that it ‘makes coalitions permanent’, and its means ‘the party that loses could win’. And, not content with all that, they’ve tried to whip up nationalist feeling too – saying FPTP is “the British way”.

These arguments are a combination of the nonsensical and the downright reactionary. Yes, it is the British way, but it’s a very bad way that has its origins in the fact we never properly completed our democratic revolution – like they did in France when they overthrew its absolute monarchy.

We’ve never had a chance to decide democratically what electoral system we wanted – when the ruling class finally realised that universal suffrage was inevitable, they chose a system that would be the least democratic.

Under FPTP if people ‘want their vote to count’, they have to vote for the party they think will win locally, rather than the one that they feel most closely represents them.

Yes – everyone gets a single vote, but your vote will only count to the make up of seats in parliament that are distributed if you back the winner.

It’s a terrible system – a real affront to democracy.

AV doesn’t break the principle of one person, one vote – it just allows you to indicate a preference. If your candidate scores a high number of first preferences, they are still counted in the second, third, etc, rounds, but just along with the second preferences too.

That means the result is much more transparent, because the first preferences are a surer indication of the actual amount of electoral support a party has. It therefore changes voting behaviour by undermining the ‘vote for a winner, or don’t vote’ mentality.

Why the controversy?

All electoral systems in a capitalist system are designed with certain ‘goals’ in mind. The FPTP system is designed to uphold a two-party system. That’s why there are lot of vested interests amongst the parliamentary party that oppose it – the Tories see FPTP as the system which won them power in most elections on a minority of popular support for most of the 20th century.

The same reasoning is used by the Labour MPs who are opposing it too – they see it as the best system to give them victory without having to win a majority of the vote. Some on the left of the party have even argued that this helps foster a ‘class vote’ for Labour.

Socialists in contrast should be the most consistent democrats. That’s why we want a proportional system – while we always argue for workers to vote ‘with their class’, there is no reasons why this means you need an undemocratic system. But as we are not being offered this – should we back AV?

The answer is “yes we should.”

Our support should be critical because it’s not proportional – but everything that is bad about AV is true of FPTP.

Some socialists have dared to suggest that AV is somehow a step backwards because it might help the moderate centre by encouraging parties to play to the middle ground, or ‘triangulate’. But bourgeois politicians do all these things already – that is no reason to oppose a reform that makes voting more democratic.

Far left confusion shows lack of principle

The Socialist Workers Party have argued for a “no” vote even though they don’t support the existing FPTP system.

This is very odd, because a “no” vote can only mean supporting the status quo.

But it gets worse. Their reasoning doesn’t approach the question from the standpoint of principle – i.e. which system is more democratic – but instead from how it might affect the votes of left candidates, and, more bizarrely, whether a no vote will be a “vote against Clegg”.

The idea that because it’s an inadequate compromise we should stick with what we’ve got is illogical. And, the idea that it is worse than FPTP is nonsensical and parrots Tory lies.

With AV there is greater transparency in terms of people’s actual political allegiances. It changes voting behaviour as you can vote anticapitalist first, then Labour second, for example, without thinking you are throwing your vote away if you back a candidate who isn’t likely to win. That’s a marginal improvement.

The idea that our vote should be determined by what’s bad for the Lib Dems is ipso facto opportunist (what about democratic principles?) and willfully purblind (what about the Tories?) By the same logic a no vote, which they advocate, could be labelled a vote “for Cameron”.

It illustrates the eclecticism and unsystematic approach of the Socialist Workers Party on programmatic questions – the issues of what you stand for, and why you stand for it.

The trade union leadership are opposing AV because as good old Labourites, they back the existing undemocratic system. But why would groups that say they’re trying to build an alternative to Labour do the same?

Apart from the absurd idea that a vote for Cameron will weaken the Coalition, they also complain that Galloway (Respect) or Caroline Lucas (the Greens) might not have won under AV.

This may or may not be true – no one can know with any certainty. But what we can be sure of is that this is not an argument based on principle.

If there was a proportional system smaller parties would gain MPs on the basis of their national vote share. That’s certainly the system we want. But to complain that with AV candidates need to have a majority of support of first and second preferences to win a seat is hardly a democratic argument.

It amounts to saying – ‘keep an appalling undemocratic system, as one day it might benefit us’.

The real danger is that with the hysterical “no” campaign enjoying such wide, self-interested support from the political establishment, they might clinch it.

That would put the issue of electoral reform off the political agenda for a generation and we would be stuck with the rotten FPTP system.

It’s essential therefore, that socialists campaign energetically for a “yes” vote.


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