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.


Electoral Anger

April 19, 2011

An interesting post from Chris Dillow on Cameron’s ‘gut feelings’ around the AV referendum. Interesting indeed, because towards the end of the post he appears to be moving towards a similar ‘gut feeling’ about the lack of justice inherent in the power structures Cameron is seeking to defend.

He is right to do so; one of the features of this referendum has been the very clear dividing line between those who are seeking to defend our current structures of power and those who are seeking to overturn them, however slightly. At the gut level, liberalism is about power – not legalistic theories or shopping lists of rights. It’s about feeling – and I do mean feeling – that the concentration of power in the hands of any one individual or group is an abomination. If necessary, that power must be wrested from them and distributed as widely as possible.

AV accomplishes that in a minor way by permitting preferential voting, handing voters the power to express their democratic preferences outwith the framework of the main parties without simultaneously losing their influence. It is bad for the sort of American-style tribal politics which keeps the electorate locked up in two boxes, never allowing a diversity of opinion to flourish. To oppose it is revealing – it implies that you prefer to restrain public opinion, lest it become too diverse and your interests become threatened. It is this, therefore, which lies at the root of the opposition of rightwing libertarians; to them, freedom is only something that is acceptable inasmuch as it does not threaten the interests of capital. That is not liberalism, and is indeed a long way from it.

So therefore, my fellow campaigners, I would urge you to get angry. The polls aren’t looking good for us, and the only thing that might save the campaign right now is reaching out at the gut level to our latent supporters – who are everyone whose interests do not lie in the current structures of power.

Something’s bothering me about one of the arguments used by the NO2AV campaign:

1) AV benefits the least unpopular party

2) AV will benefit the Lib Dems

3) You should vote against AV because the Lib Dems are unpopular.

Bit of a big assumption there, wouldn’t you say?

I’m currently reading The Sublime Object of Ideology by left-wing darling Zizek. I’m not particularly impressed thus far – it appears to be largely the sort of intellectual dandyism beloved by the continentals; relatively simplistic concepts with minor variations hidden behind a veneer of excessive nomenclature. However, he has reminded me of an interesting philosophical trend which has bearing upon the current debate.

Let’s look at the phrase ‘ontological priority’. This is a fancy way of saying that something has to be the case for something else to be the case. Zizek uses it with reference to Marxists who think we need to overthrow the current economic order in order to sort out all of society’s ills. This ontological prioricity is also applied by other non-economic fundamentalists; people who believe that sorting out our ecological impacts will solve everything else, people who believe that sorting out the imbalance in male/female power will solve everything else, and of course people who believe that the imposition of Sharia will solve everything else.

It’s not really clear that anyone really holds such a simplistic viewpoint (although it is clear that some people genuinely believe that eco-damage is a consequence of capitalism and would never happen in a socialist utopia), but it is clear that people have a tendency to cluster around totemic explanations of the world, the answers to which will improve all aspects of society. You have the people who believe that society should aim towards incoherent concepts like ‘fairness’ or ‘progressivism’, those who believe society should aim towards some kind of classical liberalism, and those who apparently believe that if only we could improve everyone’s ‘capabilities’ society would advance.

My own totem, of course, is that society would be improved across the board if everyone focused more on cultivating their judgement, but it’s important to recognise that there are plenty of totems about. Most people have some kind of ontological priority – however weak – that informs their political judgements. Ask yourself how you would modify our contemporary society in order to begin to elucidate yours.

‘Moving society forward’ is something that is done by society; by the aggregate of all our judgements, not by the imposition of one priority or another. In order to give enough space to competing explanations of the world, we need a pluralistic system of dividing power. In this sense, the opposition of many of the Labour old guard to electoral reform is telling: they are reluctant to give this space to alternate understandings of ontological priority, as their priority is, well, their priority. However – and this is where the debate comes in – anti-essentialists would argue that there is no such thing as an ontological priority with respect to society, and all views must have the opportunity to be represented with society’s power structures.

AV, inasmuch as it provides smaller parties with a better understanding of their support, is a move towards this. It will necessarily be opposed by individuals with an investment in a particular explanation of society’s ills, which may explain why it’s being opposed by many libertarians. My advice to them would be to ditch their ontological priorities and come and join us in the glorious liberal opinion-melange.

I remain bewildered by the Right’s conviction that AV will make it more difficult to remove a government and that this somehow counts against AV. The comments on this IEA piece are rather indicative. I suspect that this is going to be the main thrust of the No2AV campaign; not least the statements from the main players about ‘accountability‘ seem to indicate this. However, on even cursory examination this makes no sense whatsoever.

Under FPTP, an MP can remain in office with only 30% of the vote – even if the remaining 70% of the electorate despise him. All it takes for this to happen is that 70% to be divided between three alternative candidates – just to show I’m unbiased, look at this example of a Lib Dem winning in Norwich South on 29.4%. Under AV, the transfer of votes from the Greens mean that Simon Wright would’ve almost certainly lost to Labour.

A more obvious example is Luton South, the former seat of Margaret Moran. There was a clear majority of anti-Labour votes based on Moran’s expenses controversies, but yet Labour got back in even with a 7.9% swing against them. This is a clear case of FPTP protecting a discredited local party from the implications of their abuses – not to even go into Mark Thompson’s analysis of expense abuses by safety of seat. AV goes a long way towards eliminating safe seats by substantially reducing the level at which a seat can be considered ‘safe’ – absolute majorities count for a lot less under AV than relative majorities. There is no way in which this cannot be considered to provide more accountability.

The other bizarre issue the Right raises is the power to reject a government. This appears to be a confusion about what a government is, or indeed a political party. Any party is a coalition of a variety of different agendas, policies and programmes, in most cases individuated down to the level of the individual themselves. A party’s manifesto is an amalgam of these; the mean of the beliefs of everyone within that party (at least theoretically). A coalition between parties is exactly the same, except with fewer formal structures.

The policy agenda delivered by a government is the result of that amalgamation. Correspondingly, voters never reject a particular government, they reject the individuals who support that particular policy agenda. AV facilitates this, as discussed above. The Right appears convinced that the rejection of sufficient numbers of individuals across a given geographic area (corresponding to the constituencies of our electoral system) is enough to justify pushing out that policy platform entirely. This misses the point that the policy platform may remain in operation if sufficient individuals have been elected who support it, even if they are wearing the wrong badge. For example, New Labour continued many of the lassez faire policies of the Tories, despite wearing different badges. The policy platform of the Tories was not rejected wholesale. The emphasis merely shifted marginally, if you looked really closely.

It needs to be said again: rejecting a party is not the same as rejecting a policy platform. British politics is not Manichean. It’s individuals that matter, and AV gives voters more power to reject – or elect – a given individual than FPTP. The Right’s arguments against AV are just plain weird. It’s almost as though they have an alternate agenda they daren’t spell out.