Here in the United Kingdom, we have a referendum tomorrow on whether to replace our First Past The Post voting system with the Alternative Vote. Over the past year, polls have shown a strong lead for voting reform slip back to roughly even pegging, then collapse over the past two months. At this stage, it’s fair to say that a win for AV would be a surprise.
Critics point to the emotive tactics of the No campaign, overwhelmingly funded by wealthy Conservative party donors. There is a sense of the British establishment flexing its muscles, underlined by the symbolic decision not to invite our two recent Labour prime ministers to last week’s Royal Wedding. (The former Conservative prime ministers, John Major and Margaret Thatcher, were both conspicuously present.)
The day before that wedding, I sat down with Justin Pickard in the upstairs room of The Three Kings in Clerkenwell to talk about the analysis he’s doing of how democratic politics responds to economic crisis. As we talked about the “collapsonomics” elections in Iceland and Ireland, two elements of the British AV campaign came to mind.
Firstly, the decline of support for electoral reform in this country has coincided with the arrival in government (as junior coalition partner) of the party which has long campaigned for it. The fortunes of the Alternative Vote track the fortunes of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. This touches on one of the issues Justin raises: if the response to economic crisis is to elect outsider candidates to parliament and even into government, what happens when these outsiders become insiders? For a few weeks during the last British general election, Clegg was able to play that outsider role. Today, his party may look nervously in the direction of Ireland: that country’s Green Party might have been well-placed to benefit from voters’ discontent, except that it spent the past few years propping up the Fianna Fáil-led government which oversaw the crisis. In this year’s election, it lost all of its parliamentary seats.
The second connection to the AV referendum is to the argument made by David Cameron and others supporting the No campaign, that our current electoral system allows for decisive results. It gives voters the ability to “kick the bastards out”. Except that, in reality, it only allows voters to replace one lot of “bastards” with the other; it is incredibly hard for new parties and political groupings to break through under First Past The Post. This has provided a certain kind of stability: in my lifetime, British politics has seen two extended periods of one-party rule, the Conservatives from 1979-97 and Labour from 1997-2010. These long tenures reflect what we might call the half-life of political distaste. For both parties, the opposition years represented a long wait for the distaste building at the current government to outweigh the lingering memory of its predecessor.
In the long crisis which broke in 2008, the effects of which are still playing out, events may be running faster than is allowed for by the natural decay of political distaste. If Labour under Gordon Brown was slowing down the social impact of crisis, while Osbourne, Cameron and Clegg’s attempts to cut the deficit at all costs are accelerating it, Britain’s first “collapsonomics” election may well be not that far off. In the absence of electoral reform (and even AV does not offer anything like proportional representation), it is hard to see where the equivalent pressure valve of democratic discontent will come from, to match the role of new political forces in the elections Justin describes. Can we return to the relatively rapid cycling between Conservative and Labour governments which marked the crisis years of the 1970s? Could new political forces somehow emerge through the existing electoral system – or even within the existing monolithic party structures? What role is there for outsiders in British politics?
This audio is also available to download under a CC licence from the Internet Archive.
EDIT: Here are Justin’s ‘Comparative Collapsonomics’ slides, as discussed in the podcast: