NO2AV, a strategic error of the Establishment

May 14, 2011

One of the (few) things I remember from being a nipper at Middle School are my History lessons, largely because of my teacher, Mr Scialuga. He was a highly entertaining Spaniard whose lessons were packed with the sort of anecdotes that are highly amusing to ten-year-olds – castles taken by spies climbing up garderobes, King Harald’s victory over the Chelsea supporters at Stamford Bridge, and so on.

He also imparted one rather sage bit of wisdom, which to me explained a significant amount of our history: The British Establishment always knows when to give a little ground to avoid revolution. Indeed, compared to our colleagues on the Continent, the history of British politics over the last couple of hundred years has been one of marked stability. We’ve had no revolutions, no wholesale reorganisation of our parliament, or indeed major alterations of territory following internal wars. Except Ireland, but that’s a whole other island so doesn’t count.

This can, in large part, be attributed to the willingness of the Establishment to undertake reform when it appears necessary to avoid further unrest. The historical strategy of the top ranks of British society with regard to ensuring their grip on power has always been to invite dissenters into its midst and make them their own. This involves a certain loss of power, to be sure, but losing a slice of the pie is far preferable to losing the entire pie.

I’m bringing this up now as the decision of Cameron to come out and fight for the No2AV campaign appears to have been critical for its success. Not only that, the solid closing of Conservative and Labour ranks under that banner was, quite frankly, astonishing – the tribalists in each party seemingly able to put aside their tribalism for the sake of an electoral system that allows them to continue being, well, tribal.

This was very clearly an Establishment victory. But as an Establishment victory, it falls out of the pattern identified above, inasmuch as it appears to aim at more instability, rather than less. Let me explain.

Far from allowing a ‘progressive majority’ to triumph, which was always nonsense, AV would’ve allowed something much more important: the division of the Left. Since 1997, Labour has been unable to fully represent the economic interests of those sections of the electorate it purports to, because as consequence of globalisation, those interests have diverged. A significant section of the working population of the UK have skillsets that in the new global market are valued at less than the cost of an aspirational lifestyle in the UK. They are the losers of globalisation; the factory workers, the call-centre staff, or, perhaps the most iconic, the miners. At the same time, those slightly better off have taken advantage of the boom in cheaper consumer goods that globalisation facilitates – the near universality of mobile phones can be traced back to the comparative advantages generated by cheaper trade.

The least well off have not done well out of globalisation, but by opposing market forces Labour would’ve restricted its ability to represent those who were benefiting from the flood of cheaper goods. The consequences of this on the voting patterns of the electorate are fairly clear:

Source: ‘Trends in political participation in the UK‘.

Turnout collapsed across all social classes in 2001. While turnout amongst the better-off began to rise to pre-1997 levels in the subsequent two elections, the relative increase in turnout amongst the least well-off was tiny. Labour’s strategy of focusing on the middle classes while assuming that the lower classes had nowhere else to go paid electoral dividends, but it did so by turning off a significant chunk of those same lower classes from politics entirely. To ensure that those people didn’t start looking for other political solutions instead of not voting, Labour kept up transfer payments in the form of improved service provision, figuratively stuffing their mouths with gold, while making no moves to reform the economy along lines that would benefit them more comprehensively.

This was successful, as long as the money didn’t run out. It did, and the Labour Party is currently going through a period of introspection in an effort to resolve this internal contradiction – witness the debate between Blue Labour and Purple Labour. The result can only be a similarly unsatisfactory fudge, as long as the party continues to try to reach out to two groups with differing economic interests. My bet is that the low-skilled will be losers again, from the brutal electoral calculation that the working classes are in terminal decline.

AV would have allowed a better solution – a division of the party into a formal electoral pact between an offering to those whose economic interests are best served by protectionism and nationalisation, and those whose economic interests lie with globalisation. Both would be united by a shared commitment to the provision of public services by the State. The model would be similar to the pact between the Liberal and National parties in Australia, and would enable the least well-off to have their interests represented in Parliament.

My fellow admirers of the free market will at this point be asking why on earth I would want parliamentarians committed to protectionism and nationalisation to have any space in the national debate. The answer is that voting reform has been a long time passion of Liberals for multiple reasons, the relevant one here being stability. If you give everyone an opportunity to have an input into the political process, then you reduce the incentive for civil unrest, because everyone has a stake in society. If there’s one thing the free market requires, it’s stability. The Establishment has moved to ensure that a significant chunk of the electorate will not have the chance to sit at the political table. This, I would aver, is a serious strategic mistake.

I’m not saying that the outcome of the referendum will indirectly lead to riots, merely that it makes civil unrest amongst those whose voices aren’t being heard more likely. Labour avoided this by effectively paying off the losers of globalisation; the Conservative approach has always been to hope that economic growth will be sufficient to somehow buy them off. This is something of a gamble, but it may yet work. I would’ve preferred the Liberal approach of redistributing power rather than money, but the electorate has spoken. It wants money instead. Pity we don’t have any.

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