Month: November 2010

The Alternative Vote – a step in the right direction

In an ideal world I don’t think I’d have much to do with the Alternative Vote method of electing MPs, the option which will be put forward in next year’s referendum on Electoral Reform. I’m a long-standing believer in Proportional Representation and, whatever the merits of AV, it is certainly not proportional.

Having said that, there are many advantages of this system over the current First Past The Post method of electing our MPs. (The following passage is taken from the Electoral Reform Society’s website.)

The case for AV

  • All MPs would have the support of a majority of their voters. Following the 2010 election 2/3 of MPs lacked majority support, the highest figure in British political history.
  • It retains the same constituencies, meaning no need to redraw boundaries, and no overt erosion of the constituency-MP link.
  • It penalises extremist parties, who are unlikely to gain many second-preference votes.
  • It eliminates the need for tactical voting. Electors can vote for their first-choice candidate without fear of wasting their vote.
  • It encourages candidates to chase second- and third-preferences, which lessens the need for negative campaigning (one doesn’t want to alienate the supporters of another candidate whose second preferences one wants) and rewards broad-church policies.

Additionally the AV system would reduce (although not eliminate) the number of safe seats in the British Parliament. It is no coincidence that the worst excesses of the MPs’ expenses scandal occurred in the safest parliamentary constituencies – security seemed to breed a lack of accountability, complacency and contempt for the electorate.

Those who argue against the fairer votes campaign will tell you that FPTP is a simple system which provides strong government. The first part of that argument is true – FPTP is a simple system. However, the inference is that AV is complicated. This is clearly not true. The arrogance of many behind the ‘No’ campaign is clearly demonstrated by their view that voters are somehow not bright enough to be able to number their electoral preferences 1, 2, 3 etc. As for the suggestion of strong government only being possible through FPTP one only has to look back to the Brown, Major and Callaghan governments to demonstrate that, in recent years, this is not a given.

There is bound to be a heated debate in the run-up to next year’s poll and a taste of what’s to come can be seen by the choice of figureheads for the ‘No’ campaign. A selection of dinosaurs seems set to be wheeled out to tell us all, in essence, to leave things as they are because they know best. By contrast the ‘Yes to fairer votes‘ campaign offers an optimistic view that it just might be possible to change politics for the better.

Nick Clegg once infamously described AV as “a miserable little compromise” and to a certain extent he was right. I would far sooner see a referendum option on the Single Transferable Vote but the simple fact is that no such choice will be on the ballot paper. Britain will have a choice on 5th May 2011 whether to persevere with a system which worked well a century or so ago, but which seems a poor fit in the modern multi-party political framework, or to at least take a step in the right direction by – finally – making sure everyone’s vote counts. And what could be simpler than that?

Advertisements

Be afraid…

In 2004 the journalist Adam Curtis made an excellent series of films for the BBC called The Power Of Nightmares: The Rise Of The Politics Of Fear. In those films he made the point that, back in the 1950s, politicians ran for office with a positive agenda, promising to make our lives better through forward-thinking initiatives – by the 2000s the message had changed to a promise to protect us all from the dark and unquantifiable threat of international terrorism. This week’s terror alert has shown that, while the political colours in both the White House and Downing Street may be different from the Bush/Blair era Curtis talked about, the 21st century message of ‘be afraid, be very afraid’ is never too far from the surface.

In the wake of the ‘Cargo Bomb Plot’ voices have inevitably been raised in the UK and America, calling for tighter worldwide security measures and a heightened state of alert to protect against the global machinery of terror. Just as inevitably, there will soon be calls for more domestic legislation giving ever-greater powers to the organisation of government. Mercifully, so far, the governments on both sides of the Atlantic have shown a little restraint in their tone but, as Andrew Rawnsley wrote in this weekend’s Observer, how much pressure will it take from vested interests like the head of MI6 before the encouraging Lib Dem and Conservative noises in Opposition are brushed aside when it comes to decisions over, for example, the control orders regime? A sensible, informed debate about the balance between security and liberty would be most useful right now.

I don’t wish to belittle the very real danger that the ‘Cargo Bomb Plot’ presented. There can be little doubt that there are all manner of ‘terrorist cells’ trying their hardest to garner the worldwide publicity that a major atrocity would have afforded them. Where I struggle is with the suggestion that there is a highly organised global network of terror, masterminded by Osama Bin Laden, operating under the banner of ‘al-Qa’ida’.

I’m no natural enthusiast for the conspiracy theory. I’m certain that NASA landed on the Moon, that the death of Diana was a tragic accident and that Lee Harvey Oswald really was the man who pulled the trigger in Dallas on that November day in 1963. Similarly I don’t believe that the US government was complicit in the 9/11 outrage, other than through its incompetence.

Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that the Bush administration used the fallout from the attack on the World Trade Center to unite the western world against a common enemy, in the same way Ronald Reagan painted the ‘Evil Empire’ myth of the Soviet Union. Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the global arms and oil corporations used this fear to push their hard-edged neo-conservative agenda. The damage, in Iraq and Afghanistan, was both massive and utterly counter-productive. The onus is now on politicians on both sides of the Atlantic to ensure that the climate of fear which led to those campaigns is not fostered again in pursuit of an enemy which bears no relation to the image painted by those whose motives are considerably less than pure.