Monday, May 02, 2011

Aside : The Referendum on the voting system

First Past The Post is undoubtedly the electoral system that the United Kingdom deserves. Old-fashioned, rooted in the past, not one new democracy in Europe with the benefit of a blank slate and no vested interests has chosen FPTP as their electoral system. FPTP has delivered a complacent House of Commons, where time-serving MPs, confident in the inevitability of their re-election, have no incentive to serve their constituents or to challenge the decisions decreed by their party leaders. In a country which can still come to a halt to celebrate the nuptuals of the fortunate young man who by a quirk of fate will one day give his assent to the passage into law of those Bills approved by his legislators, it is entirely appropriate that these legislators should themselves be selected by a system that largely perpetuates the two-party status quo and effectively disenfranchises all these voters who don't have the good fortune to be cast into a Key Marginal.

The Alternative Vote is not the perfect solution - it is not proportional, it will still favour artificial majorities in Parliament (and if anyone claims that coalition or minority government cannot work, I point them in the direction of mature European democracies from Scotland to Scandanavia to Germany, Benelux and Spain who would seem, by and large, to be making quite a good fist of it). However, it will ensure that all Elected Representatives will have broad-based support, burnishing the tarnished legitimacy of Parliament and effectively ending any electoral aspirations of extremists on both right and left (that AV encourages extremism is quantifiably a bare-faced lie that the No campaign should have been thoroughly ashamed to have propagated). AV fails to enforce intraparty competition like my preferred option, the Single Transferable Vote in multimember constituencies used in Republic of Ireland General Elections, and Northern Ireland Euro elections where it conveniently generates the correct result for all parties. AV maintains a constituency link but no top-up lists as in Scotland to ensure proportionality.

However, it would refresh political engagement within the United Kingdom. General Elections would be fought across a wider swathe of Britain, as parties adapted their message to engage with second and third preferences. Tactical voting would largely (not exclusively) become something of the past as votes cast their first preference with their heart and their second preference with their head. And yet, the arguments in favour of AV have been poorly articulated in what has basically been a dismal electoral campaign all round. The traditional Labour left has, for reasons best known to itself, cast aside the best opportunity in years to ensure progressive views do not cancel each other out at the Ballot Box, whilst the existing system has served the Conservatives very nicely for years thank you very much, even though they would benefit themselves from AV if UKIP and the far right increased significantly in popularity.

The vox pops on the News tell their own depressing story. Outside the chattering classes, a politically unengaged electorate does not have the energy or wit to examine the arguments on offer, it doesn't see whats in it for them, it has not been confronted with a compelling argument one way or the other. There has been no debate on television, the newspapers have taken their own predictable stances. Meanwhile electoral turnout falls and the level of political disengagement increases. Parliamentary legitimacy will diminish and other means of protest from the politically disenfranchised will be sought. We have seen in Britain and elsewhere how unpredictable these protests might turn out to be.

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