Monday, July 27, 2009

Talking about voting systems and other wastes of people's time

Why, as Neal Lawson implicitly concedes, is discussion of voting systems the reserve of political anoraks? Not that people are disinterested in politics - although generally they are - but simply because voting systems don't do what their advocates claim for them. They only make a difference at the margins of our representative democracies - so the need for the anorak, or the pillow, arises from the discussion of arcane mechanisms that make virtually no difference at all to the way people live their lives.

This observation is prompted by the news that Brown is apparently giving serious consideration to a referendum on voting reform to coincide with the next General Election. Neal Lawson thinks this would be a good idea for many reasons, one of these being that it would wrong-foot the Tories:
"But if they plump for a referendum, it's unlikely to be a principled decision. [Only unlikely? - Ed] Gordon Brown may be many things, but he is no pluralist. He trusts nothing but his own judgment. But he knows a good wedge issue with the Tories when he sees one and wedges don't come more wedge-shaped than voting reform. So a referendum won't signal that he's seen the democratic light, but the realisation that it causes David Cameron one almighty political headache."
I would have to disagree. The reason that electoral reform is decidedly unwedge-shaped and unlikely to cause David Cameron an "almighty political headache" is that most people are not interested in it. And the reason for this - forgive me for repeating myself here - is that it is not that interesting, on account of the fact that it doesn't do what its advocates claim for it. I could point out that Italy has PR and expect to be able to leave it at that but experience of reading liberal broadsheets and blogs would suggest that this, inexplicably, isn't enough. Despite copious evidence from all other European states and even within the UK in a small province in the north of Britain called Scotland, advocates of voting reform seem to expect nothing short of the complete rejuvenation of our political system, if only the virtues of STV, AMS or AV plus were allowed to work their magic on the body politic. Here's our Neal again...
"First, the state is no longer a machine that can be controlled from the centre. We the people have to be part of the process of identifying the problem and delivering the solution. Reform has to be done with us and not just to us. Second, with FPTP, only the votes of a few swing voters in a few swing seats count. As few as 100,000 rather fickle punters decide each election. What is more, the media barons like Rupert Murdoch who are perceived to hold sway over them call all the political shots. This leads to the third problem: democracy is only meaningful if it allows competing visions of the good society to do battle. FPTP doesn't allow any such competition as the main parties huddle on the centre ground.

Only a proportional voting system breaks all this up. And through it, democracy becomes an end in itself; valued not because it delivers state power, but because it empowers all of us to take back control over our lives. We become powerful citizens who can change anything and not just individual consumers searching for the good life on the shelves of the shops. We can't stop climate change on our own, the slide to greater inequality or rein in the power of financialised capitalism. We have to do it together. Democracy is the architecture of change. "The remedy for the ill of democracy," said Thomas Jefferson, "is more democracy."
Surely it can't have escaped Neal Lawson's attention that a media baron, elected under PR, is running Italy at the moment? What evidence is there that PR leads to decentralisation and the flowering of democracy? If anything it does the opposite, often giving as it does more power to the party machines. If it gives people a sense of control over their lives, they are distinctly apathetic about it, as the turnout for elections in Scotland for the Edinburgh Parliament have shown. One reason for apathy is, I would suggest, that people have a reasonable sense of where power lies. This is why, for example, that the turnout in local elections in the UK is so dismally low. Regardless of the mechanism used to elect them, British local government has to be just about the weakest in the developed world.

The other has to do with the nature of the choice people are confronted with. Do you want Thatcher in a kilt or Thatcher in a bigger kilt? Last time by a narrow margin Scots voted for the Thatcher in a bigger kilt - who then proposed, with a local income tax that had the slight drawback of not being a local income tax at all, to effectively abolish local democracy. Devolution only goes so far for Alex Salmond and the SNP, y'see. That they failed with this ridiculous and undemocratic idea - as they have with some of the more ambitious hare-brained ideas they've proposed - is undoubtedly a benign feature of our proportional voting system. Their minority status has resulted in a situation where most of their flagships are sinking into the Leith, leaving them with little else to focus on except bridge tolls, state-sponsored kitsch and fucking up the education system. Better than one or two possible alternatives one can imagine no doubt - but my point is, this hardly represents the revitalisation of democracy that PR advocates claim for their hobby-horse. Neal Lawson quotes Jefferson, who said: "The remedy for the ill of democracy is more democracy." Uh huh? But voting reform doesn't necessarily represent more democracy - only a slight change to the rules under which those entrenched interests compete in our representative democracy. This is why most people aren't that interested in it - and are right not to be that interested in it.

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