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Leading article The Week

Leader: No alternative

‘It’s not the voting that’s democracy,’ says Dotty in Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers, ‘It’s the counting.’ Dotty is right, of course.

23 April 2011

12:00 AM

23 April 2011

12:00 AM

‘It’s not the voting that’s democracy,’ says Dotty in Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers, ‘It’s the counting.’ Dotty is right, of course.

‘It’s not the voting that’s democracy,’ says Dotty in Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers, ‘It’s the counting.’ Dotty is right, of course. Counting may be boring, but it is crucial. Nick Clegg knows this well. If on 5 May Britain decides to count votes the AV way, it will be a triumph for his party. According to a recent academic analysis, the alternative vote would give the Lib Dems 43 more MPs — almost doubling the number they have now.

But it would be a victory not just for Lib Dems, but also for the forces of banality. Why? Because AV would inevitably mean that the ‘conviction’ politicians — the Tony Benns and the Margaret Thatchers — would be filtered out of the system. Anyone with forceful opinions or real plans for reform would be unlikely to collect second- or third-preference votes. In a system that favours the least offensive and most pedestrian, the Lib Dems would prosper.


So why are we having this referendum on AV? It wasn’t, after all, in either of the coalition parties’ manifestos. The answer is that it’s Nick Clegg’s consolation prize. Going into coalition with the Conservatives has proved so toxic for his party that, if an election were held tomorrow, the Lib Dems would lose 39 of their 57 MPs. It seems almost by way of apology to his deputy that David Cameron has agreed to give him a chance to rig the British electoral system in his favour.

But no matter how sorry we may feel for Clegg, history shows that our recent attempts to improve British democracy have only made things worse. After two decades of constitutional tinkering, power has been parcelled away from Westminster and sent to Strasbourg, to Brussels, to the Celtic fringe or to the judiciary. The result is that the public feels increasingly disenfranchised, and politicians wonder why so few bother to turn up to vote in elections.

The tragedy of devolution in Scotland is a case in point. Powers were passed from Westminster to Holyrood under a new continental-style voting system. By putting a new class of politicians in charge of the functions of the old Scotland Office, it was hoped that Scotland could be turned into a laboratory for new ideas, brought forward by a new generation of politicians. Instead, the parties filled the Scottish Parliament with apparatchiks. The choice of MSPs was so supremely uninspiring that most voters abstained in the 2003 Holyrood election. They may do the same next month.

Rather than rejuvenate Scotland, this new voting system has had a stultifying effect. The newly created political class has only one objective: to hoard the powers that were devolved down to it. So MSPs said no to the market-based reforms now rejuvenating English education and health care. They opted instead to preserve Scotland’s gargantuan state sector. The losers were ordinary Scots, who saw hospital waiting times lengthen and their schools plunge down the international league tables. But rather than present a radical alternative, the Scottish Conservatives (a phrase which is starting to become oxymoronic) have sought to talk, walk and vote like their supposed opponents.

Blandness has already become the curse of British politics, at a local and national level. Our political parties are already too much alike, and for this reason it is tempting to join the apathetic majority and stay at home on 5 May. But if you think British politics is boring now, just see what happens if AV is voted in: a great blanket of homogeneity will fall over British politics. Candidates will start to converge, vying for each other’s third-preference votes. And it’ll be almost impossible ever to care again. Little wonder AV has been rejected in every major democracy in the world save for Australia, whose elections are so uninspiring that voting is a legal obligation.

Every so often in politics, an outsider comes along and changes everything. It happened in Middlesbrough when Ray Mallon was elected mayor and cut crime by a fifth. It happened in Britain in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher steered a nation away from what seemed like an inevitable, inexorable decline. But unless you vote no on 5 May, this sort of radical transformative change may never be possible again.


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