Sunday, 8 May 2011

AV may be a lost cause- but reforming politics needn’t be.

The Alternative Vote (AV) offered to the public in a referendum this week as an alternative way of electing MPs to Westminster is dead in the water. Out of nineteen million people who voted thirteen million reacted to the prospect of minor constitutional change in the way a seven year old does when presented with a plate of broccoli risotto; meaning they screwed their collective face into an exaggerated expression of disgust before pushing it away.

Nick Clegg, some time Deputy Prime Minister and full time poster boy for everything the ‘NO to AV’ campaign hates about change described the result as ‘a bitter blow for all those people who believe in the need for electoral reform.’ He remains, he told the BBC on Friday ‘a passionate supporter of electoral reform,’ but was also one who accepted that ‘you ask someone a question and get an overwhelming answer; you just have to move on.’

Ed Milliband, also a supporter of AV said the public had ‘delivered a clear verdict which I accept’, he went on to say that elections in the UK have to change to make ‘people feel more included in our politics.’ Since then he has called on those Liberal Democrats who support electoral reform to withdraw from the coalition which was meant with total earnestness but is unlikely to provoke a meaningful response. A few Lib Dems, Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne for one, might jump ship, but faced with the certainty of electoral annihilation now most will plump for clinging to the Tories in the hope that an improved economic picture in four years time will save their bacon.

David Cameron has played down the result, describing it as a ‘difficult moment’ for the coalition; difficult but not fatal. In the longer term the nagging worry that his coalition partners might one day pull out could spoil things; but for now there is only one alpha male around the cabinet table and he’s called Dave.

The gloating was left to Matthew Elliot of the ‘No to AV’ campaign who smugly declared that Friday’s result would ‘settle the debate about changing our electoral system for the next generation.’ It was left to Kate Ghose of ‘Yes to Fairer Votes’ to point out that the ‘debate’ on AV hadn’t been centred on the ‘issues of democracy’ that really concern people and that even though they lost this round of the contest ‘over five million people voted for change.’

Lets put our cards on the table the ‘Yes’ campaign was fatally flawed from the start, too many self satisfied celebrities and squabbling amongst political egos; too little in the way of meaningful connection with voters. It was also evident from that start that AV was too much of a ‘miserable little compromise’ to satisfy believers in real change; even though many of us voted for it anyway.

Even so five million people voted for AV, more than the membership of all three main political parties put together and then multiplied. Not enough to swing the vote but still a sizeable constituency, add the that the fact that the result of the last general election shows that the public don’t trust any of the main parties sufficiently to let them take power outright and the prospects for the progressives don’t look anywhere near so bleak.

The ‘No’ campaign won the battle over AV because it played on the fear of the new that is an innate part of the British character and they did so with consummate skill and shameless cynicism. Never mind the personal attacks on Nick Clegg that grabbed so much media attention think instead about the assumptions they made about you and me; the voting public. We’re all too stupid and impressionable to be trusted with ranking election candidates in order of preference, what we want instead is to be patted on the head and told what’s good for us by the people who have always done so.

It is troubling to think that a democracy has a defined ‘political class’ at all, but the realisation that this is how they see everyone else is enough to turn your stomach. Last Thursday five million people saw the need for change, not enough to win the day but more than enough to form the foundation for a campaign movement dedicated to bringing political power back to the people of this country. Working together to build such a movement rather than retreating to lick their wounds and nurse their recriminations is what progressives of all parties and none should be doing today.

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