AV's not perfect, but we need it for plurality

Published Thursday, 28 April 2011
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Hilary Wainwright: The first-past-the-post system has led to the slow death of a critical political culture. AV would at least give oxygen to debate

Parliament's numbness to the million-strong march against the Iraq war has left a legacy of profound scepticism about parliamentary politics as we know it. As widespread protest grows against the coalition's erosion of public services, could AV make our political institutions any more sensitive to outside the political class?

My starting point is Thomas Rainsborough's powerful argument for extending the franchise, irrespective of wealth and property: "The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he ... every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under the government ... the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under".

Four centuries from Rainsborough's declaration, eight decades from the suffragettes winning the universal franchise, UK prime ministers govern without a mandate of the majority, and governments regularly implement policies that benefit the rich or the corporations and over which the poorest effectively have no say – the dismantling of the NHS being the latest such demonstration of contempt for the voters.

In other words, what was a democratic victory – the winning of the universal right to vote, opening a dynamic towards more radical democratic reforms – has been turned into an opaque system of elite rule.

The "winner takes all" electoral system has been a vital accomplice in this establishment hijack, giving spurious appeal to the mythologies of democratic rule that have veiled the nature of the UK's unwritten, monarchical constitution. These mystified arrangements in turn have protected the financial interests of the City that have shaped what are and aren't allowed as policy options in public debate. No wonder the financial and political establishment is now closing ranks to ensure that this guard against genuine public accountability stays in place.

Evidence of the mass disenfranchisement that is part of this electoral system is overwhelming and has been well publicised. But another, less publicised, consequence of first-past-the-post voting has been the slow death of a critical political culture. It underpins the pull of electoral competition towards the political centre. Instead of enabling representative democracy to, in the words of cultural theorist Raymond Williams, "re-present" the plurality of views held by the population, it effectively excludes or politically kettles the wide range of alternatives to the mainstream.

This has got worse under corporate globalisation, which has transformed the hidden rules of political debate. The power of the global market has meant that policies in its favour are presented as unavoidable, turning politics into a process of technical economic management. A challenge to this process requires a concerted expansion of the argument and debate that is necessary for political creativity. Instead, the New Labour leadership – whose legacy is proving difficult to dismantle – treated open debate as beyond the bounds of legitimate politics. Now, sucked into the quicksand of the centre ground, the Lib Dem leadership does the same.

So I'm viewing the referendum as an opportunity to open up a process of structural political change, an opportunity that is a result of us, the voters refusing to place our trust in existing political options. This is far more important than punishing Nick Clegg. Clegg's clinging to the coat tails of Cameron is a product of the present system and he and the Lib Dems will not be able to control the dynamic of change that even the minimal opening of AV represents.

AV is not proportional and it's not the solution. But it will force an opening up of political debate. Alternative views, previously marginalised or excluded, would become a legitimate part of the political process – perhaps in a minimal way at first, but with an angry, alienated and determined electorate there would be a real possibility of it opening up an uncertain dynamic. AV will enable voters to demonstrate their true first preferences, which currently are masked by the absence of alternatives and because many people have to vote tactically or abstain.

For example, the growing resistance to the idea that "there is no alternative" to the cuts could, through AV, make itself directly part of the political process. The kind of electoral challenge made by Richard Taylor in Worcester could become a powerful political force since such campaigns can attract support from broad stretches of the community. AV would challenge the main parties to relate to forces outside of Westminster, like the hundreds of thousands who marched through London on 26 March insisting that cutting public services is not the way to sustainable economic recovery. It could also strengthen the ability of parties such as the Greens to better identify their support at local level, and lay the foundations for new progressive electoral alliances in the future.

A no vote to electoral reform would send out all the wrong messages, and be trumpeted as evidence that the British public is broadly content with our politics. Worse still, it might derail existing commitments to see PR introduced for the second chamber. It wouldn't so much weaken the coalition as confirm our own powerlessness in the face of the interests that guide its agenda. It's not for nothing that the head of the Taxpayers Alliance has given up his time to lead the no campaign.

I will grasp the opportunity of the referendum to vote for AV as a vote for change. My hope is that it will initiate a dynamic of change driven from below, not just for genuine proportional representation at Westminster, but for a participatory constituent assembly to produce a democratic written constitution, the objectives of which could well incorporate the egalitarian spirit of Rainsborough.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2011
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