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AV is no miracle cure for broken political system

To listen to the supporters of the Alternative Vote (AV) system, you would think that a 'Yes' vote in the May 5 referendum would lead to a miraculous new lease of life for the clapped-out parliamentary democracy we have now.

A letter that came through my door the other day claims that AV will lead to MPs working harder, give voters a stronger voice and tackle “jobs for life” at Westminster. Under AV, voters can rank candidates if they want to. The preferences of bottom candidates are redistributed until someone has 50% of the votes. Following the 2010 election two-thirds of MPs lacked majority support, the highest figure in British political history.

But evidence suggests AV is not exactly a lot 'fairer' than the present first-past-the-post (FPTP) system where the candidate with the most votes is declared the winner. The real outcome of AV, planned or otherwise, would be coalition politics on a grand and lasting scale.

In an indirect way, the AV campaign reflects the break-up of the two-party system in the period of corporate-driven globalisation. Where Old Labour, at least sometimes, did not totally identify with big business and finance, its 21st century version does. The Tories under David Cameron have made themselves a successor to Blair rather than Thatcher.

In 1951, the two main parties polled 96.8% of the total electorate between them. By last year, the figure had slumped to 65.1%. Yet the voting system continues to reward Labour and the Tories, who captured 86% of the seats in the House of Commons last May.

All parties are concerned to win the votes of the so-called 'squeezed middle' and their concern is what the money markets and transnational corporations think about their policies. So, for example, the Electoral Reform Society, which backs the 'Yes' campaign, says: “It [AV] 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.”

Labour leader Ed Miliband’s message at the launch of the 'Yes' campaign was similar, claiming that “AV would encourage us to build bridges, not barriers, between parties so that we can persuade more voters of our case” before adding: “I believe today’s political culture, which only encourages division, profoundly damages belief in politics”.

Most Labour MPs are against AV, which is not surprising because their party only needs a three-point lead in votes in order to secure an overall majority under FPTP, whereas the Conservatives need about an 11 point lead. Miliband, like Blair, is a 'moderniser', despite what his MPs might want. As to the 'fairness' of AV, that is not at all clear cut, as a report by nef makes clear. The think-tank has developed an index of 'voter power'. Its report says: “AV would bring an increase in the average power of UK voters from 0.285 of a vote to 0.352 of a vote, where a score of one is a fair vote.”

Nic Mark, the creator of nef's voter power index, says AV would bring some improvements but would not get rid of the main problems. "Unfortunately, whatever the outcome of the referendum, politicians will still largely ignore voters in safe seats, while they spend most of their time, money and energy on voters in marginal constituencies."

Surely the point is that an unfair voting system reflects a broken political system. Traditional bourgeois politics is more about managing state structures on behalf of corporate and financial interests, than offering real choice. The last government bailed out the banks and the Coalition is cutting the deficit to appease the money markets. Whatever the voting system, this would have been the outcome.

So I can’t get worked up about the AV referendum and will withhold my vote. Democracy cannot end with the Westminster model. My energies, therefore, will be directed to working for completely new forms of democratic government around the concept of People’s Assemblies.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
5 April 2010

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