Updated: May 10
I’m going to do something unusual in political debate and say that I am changing my mind over an important issue. I had been pretty sure I was going to vote No to AV in the poll on the voting system, but the more I look at the debate and the more I think about it, the more likely it is that I am going to be voting yes. Ironically, my lean towards yes is probably caused by what many ‘yes’ backers call the wrong reasons. But this is an account of my thinking to add to the multitude of (far better) blog posts elsewhere on the subject and, perhaps, to help anyone else still undecided.
The first observation to make is that the level of debate has been pretty appalling. The No campaign has spun disingenously and put out some material that’s frankly an insult to the intelligence. The Yes campaign has been limp and unconvincing and often relied upon the tired old tactic of guilt by association large parts of the left have fallen back on in recent times in the absence of any intellectual ability to construct and argument. The respective arguments could be boiled down to ‘Vote Yes and you kill babies; vote No and you’re a Nazi’. Which underlines the fact that, even more than a new voting system we really need a new politics and some people prepared to construct better arguments than this patronising nonsense.
Two strands of argument in particular have grated with me. The first is ‘Voting X is wrong because Y supports it’. It’s a stupid non-argument here just as it’s been a stupid non-argument whenever it’s deployed. It avoids making a case for something and instead opts for guilt by association. It’s possible to do something or agree with something that is also done or agreed with by people who you totally disagree with on other issues. So arguing that voting against the AV system aligns you with the BNP is as stupid as saying that driving a VW Beetle makes you a Nazi.
The second irritating strand of argument is the one which says, ‘if system X had been used in a particular General Election, the result would be Y’. There is simply no way of making that case. If the voting system had been different, people would have voted based on a different set of considerations. So simply transferring the votes cast under FPTP to an AV framework tells us nothing and proves nothing. It’s an absolutely pointless exercise.
I started from the position of wanting a voting system which meant people felt confident they could vote for what they believed in rather than thinking they have to vote for what had a chance of winning. For some time now I have voted for candidates which come closest to my views. And I’ve been told I’ve wasted my vote. I understand the argument, but the alternative to voting for the candidate closest to, but still some way from, my own views is voting for a candidate whose views I oppose but who has a chance of winning. That’s no choice at all.
First past the post certainly doesn’t deliver that. But nor does AV. AV is a system no one wanted but which Nick Clegg grasped at in a desperate attempt to hold high office. It was a compromise he should never have made, especially on something allegedly so central to his party’s policies, and the fact that Clegg and the LibDems went along with a proposal put up by the Tories precisely because it was so flawed is simply the biggest of the many reasons why the LibDems never deserve to be trusted on any matter of principle ever again. I know it is argued that AV does increase ‘the power of my vote’. The simplest explanation of why came in this graphic.
I was quite receptive to the argument that AV would in fact make the situation worse. If candidates have to think about picking up second and third preference votes, surely they will be even less likely to argue for what they believe in and more likely to put forward policies which fewer people disagree with? That point was one of a number made by Owen Jones in his well-argued ‘Why I’m voting No to AV post. I contributed to the discussion on that thread, arguing that a vote for another bad system would make it less likely we’d get the chance to vote for the good system we need. I also expressed agreement with my friend and long-time NUJ colleague Tom Davies that real change comes at root from people acting, not from how the crosses on pieces of paper are totted up.
But I still had doubts. And some of those doubts were based on the ‘tribalism’ that seems to have become accepted is a bad thing. It’s an interesting choice of word, tribalism. It’s used in these circumstances to describe people consistently backing the same kind of policies, which could also be called consistency. I see the choice of ‘tribalism’ as being part of the process of de-politicising politics – the expression of disdain for anything passionately, fundamentally principled. Heaven forbid support should be decided on such criteria rather than who looked and sounded nicest in a TV debate or who provoked the least amount of disagreement by saying essentially nothing. My doubts were based on a continuing mistrust of most of the people who were backing the No vote. And I accept that here I risk doing just what I criticised above – opposing something because of who supported it, rather than for what it was.
It seems the entire right-wing political establishment – the traditional right, not the arriveste New Labour right – is not only lined up behind a No but is putting considerable resources into it. And everything I have experienced since I first became politically conscious as Thatcher rose to power tells me if these people want something, it should be opposed. I am sure at this point someone could jump in and point out sections of the left are also urging a No vote. Indeed, the ham-fisted and patronising Yes campaign has been trying to make much of the fact that the Communist Party of Britain is urging a No vote – all part of the politically illiterate and dangerous “everyone but us is an extremist” mindset. The fact that there are diverse political forces on both sides of the debate should tell the ‘oppose by association’ dunderheads something. The CPB position is in fact for no vote, opposing both AV and FPTP and instead expressing support for Single Transferable Votes in Multi-Member Constituencies – a system I favour.
But it’s a current tactical consideration that seems to be playing the largest part in my gradual move towards a Yes. I think the current Government represents as great a threat to everything I believe in as anything the darkest days of Thatcher threw up. And I think they need to be stopped. So what result would cause the greatest problem for it? There’s a view that a defeat for the odious Clegg would cause the massed ranks of radical LibDems to rise up and reclaim the party and bring the coalition down. Having watched for 18 years to see if the massed ranks of Labour’s radicals reclaimed that party from the neo-liberals I can’t honestly say I expect any different from the less radical and less principled LibDems.
A defeat for Cameron, on the other hand, would open up the kind of divisions within the Conservative Party that we saw wreck it for a generation to allow Blair and co in. While I have no faith whatsoever in the LibDems to achieve anything, I’ve seen what carnage can be wreaked by two wings of the Tories knocking seven bells out of each other. And I’m pretty sure losing the AV vote would cause major ructions within the ranks of blue. This, in turn, will make the Coalition a tougher proposition to continue with and it will prevent the LibDems from sugar-coating the hard-rightism currently being inflicted on the UK.
I also think I was wrong to assume a vote for change would block off further change. I am certain a vote for no change will block off further change because that’s what the Tories are telling their supporters. It’s a once in a generation chance to kickstart change. If the Yes lobby wins, there is momentum for change. How that is used is up to the people, which brings me back to the point made by Tom Davies which I referenced earlier. On its own, a Yes is neither here nor there. But it can be a catalyst for change, for a movement for greater reform, for accountability and against this government’s agenda. It will also need to spark moves against the inevitable moves to embed centrism and continue the depoliticisation of politics that much of what comprises the Yes campaign will attempt to push. But as always, it is the people who make history. As long as they remember.
So, if the opinion of a self-confessed changed mind counts for anything – I’m going to be voting Yes on 5 May.