Labour is sleep-walking into an Alternative Vote ambush

Anthony Painter

Poll VoteThe Labour movement column

By Anthony Painter

If Jonathan Swift were alive today, he’d have a field day with the Lilliputian AV referendum debate. There would be enough political absurdity and preposterous characters to write an entire sequel to Gulliver’s Travels. Perhaps ‘Clegg’s Travails’ would be an apt title?

In this book, we would hear about the Yeshoos, rationalist and all-knowing and a danger to civilisation as a result. Such insights seem to escape the modern politics as science crusader. Because they value truth so highly, they never lie. Instead they sneer, insinuate and associate. They preach purity while practising the politics of the gutter. Our only rational course is to submit to their will for their will is the will of the people as they are greater ‘democrats’ than we can ever hope to be. They are the new politics. Goodness, they may even be the new humanity. Count me out.

Then our new Swift would turn his attention to the Brobdingnos. They loom large in the debate also. Where the Yeshoos are sneaky and haughty, Brogdingnos are downright deceitful and blatant with it. In their own way they can be just as patronising as the Yeshoos, treating us like children thinking that we are too stupid to cope with anything remotely as sophisticated as a preferential voting system. We are too dense to work this through and so we have to be scared. It’s the only thing to motivate us. Where the Yeshoos have a very high regard for their own character, the Brobdingnos have a very low regard for our character. This more than anything distinguishes the modern day Yahoos and the Brobdingnags.

Our twenty-first century Swift would be tempted to seek refuge in satirical mockery and leave the whole AV debate to drift into the distance; a ship of fools sailing into the night. But what if we are not dispassionate observers? What if the outcome matters for the things we are in politics for and believe in? What do we do then?

To my mind, there is only one thing that has been written about the AV referendum in the last few months that is worth reading. It was written by Martin Wolf of the Financial Times and it is an argument in favour of AV. In its logic, however, it also makes the case for Labour supporters voting no to AV. He argues:

“People usually support a given voting system not on its intrinsic merits, but because it increases the likelihood of outcomes they want. I am no exception: I wish to reduce the probability of government by passionate minorities.”

I’m not sure whether Labour’s outlook is a ‘passionate minority’ or not. I suspect that it is a view that the majority could either support or tolerate. The key point though is that Martin Wolf is voting yes for instrumental reasons. He believes it will deliver the more centrist liberal outcomes that he favours (incidentally, this is debatable and highly driven by context but let’s not get diverted.) I’m involved in politics to see centre-left outcomes as far as (democratically) possible – what are you involved for?

Our political behaviour doesn’t become non-instrumental just because it’s a referendum rather than a general election. Liberal Democrats are in favour of this system because they will gain. UKIP perceive they will gain as do the Greens. The Conservatives are loathe to change any system that has traditionally served them well through the generations and they are still suspicious about the Liberal Democrats. It is all instrumental and yet the Yeshoos are trying to tell us that we should vote on the basis of which system is more ‘democratic’ (what this means is never convincingly spelled out) and an enlightened view of what is ‘best for politics.’ Garbage. Everyone is voting in their own perceived self-interest. The only mystery is quite why Labour perceives its self-interest to be the adoption of the Alternative Vote.

For some time now it has become clear that the preferences of the average Liberal Democrat voters – who will decide most contests under AV – have changed since the general election. It seemed clear in the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election that the Conservative and Liberal Democrat vote was starting to interact. Well, it is and we now have hard data that it is – published by YouGov last week.

A very basic message is that the poll must serve as a wake-up call for Labour supporters: the Liberal Democrats now favour the Conservatives over Labour. It is walking into an AV ambush and it’s completely unaware. Liberal Democrat second preferences break 31%-24% in the Conservatives favour and the third preferences break 19%-18% (while Conservative preferences break in favour of the Lib Dems.) What this means – once all the YouGov data is taken into account – is that in a seat where a Labour candidate and a Conservative candidate were neck and neck on 35% and the Liberal Democrats were on 20% with UKIP on 5% and the Greens on 5%, the Conservatives would comfortably win.

Labour is sleep-walking. Ed Miliband is right to support AV – he has made the case and given his word and he must stick to it in letter and spirit. It was a decision made in a different political context but nonetheless he must follow through if people are to retain trust in him. However, the rest of us are under no such obligation. The question is quite simple. On top of boundary changes, does Labour want to go into the next election with a default seat penalty of around 15 seats because of this change in the dynamic of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat vote? That’s what it is facing and it is Labour supporters who will decide the outcome of this referendum.

There is no way that the Liberal Democrats will be going into the next election equidistant from Labour and the Conservatives having been in a coalition with the latter. And should there be another hung parliament (which is less likely given the collapse in Lib Dem support) they will only go with Labour if that is the only viable option (i.e. No coalition with the Conservatives is numerically viable – it’s what their voters support after all.)

So like it or not, Labour must go it alone and be the alternative to the coalition. There is no other way as things stand. None of this prevents pluralistic politics at all. It will just be a pluralism of British people rather than a pluralism of parties. That’s preferable anyway – one might even say more democratic…

Tempting as it is to turn our backs on both the Yeshoos and the Brobdingnos and join the Mehhnhnms, this referendum really does matter. Labour supporters should not fool themselves that instrumentalism is not the driving force behind this referendum. It is and they should not feel ashamed if they vote no for instrumental reasons. Leave the Yeshoos to patronise all they like, be instrumental and proud.

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