The Liberal Democrats keep sending me emails complaining that opponents of voting reform in the UK are running outrageous and unethical advertisements. Perhaps it is just my naive faith in the average person, but it really doesn’t worry me if some inbred Tory eejit or some equally self-serving Nooo Labour eejit is suggesting that babies will die because of the alternative voting system (referred to ‘instant run-off’ in the US and ‘preferential voting’ in some other countries). Much more likely, the ads will have the same effect Winston Churchill engendered in the 1945 election when he said that a Labour victory would mean communism in Britain. People looked at Clem Attlee and thought: ‘I’m not so sure, Winnie.’ And they voted Labour.
The truth is that people get dangerous idiots in charge of them not because they are conned, but because they choose self-evidently dangerous idiots to be in charge of them. This explains why they vote for dangerous idiots again and again, the only mitigation being that the stupidity is much easier to spot than the danger. Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi are classic examples. What is interesting about them is not some supposed con, but why people repeatedly vote for a Tone or a Sil despite the mounting evidence that they are absolute plonkers, incapable of running their own lives, let alone anyone else’s. Anger, frustration, the hopelessness of the opposition, the different voter pattern of female electors (who always, I am sad to mention, vote disproportionately for reactionaries) — this is the stuff of psephological analysis, not some tripe about how clever advertising convinced us all to tick the wrong box.
So the political message is: state your case with maximum clarity to the maximum number of people. And what better opportunity to put this into practice than the AV referendum, which is surely an idea whose time has come. It is an almost-no-risk improvement to the voting system in a country where 35 percent of votes now go to parties other than the biggest two, compared with less than five percent after the Second World War. AV doesn’t favour small and silly parties. It keeps MPs answerable to geographic constituencies. Above all, it makes politics more competitive, which is why indolent and self serving people do not like the idea one bit. Martin Wolf in the FT (subscription needed) likes it, and though he is called Wolf, he is not exactly Wolfie out of Citizen Smith. Here’s the nub of what Wolf has written:
‘Why, then, might the switch to the alternative vote be justified? The answer is that over time the present system has become increasingly unrepresentative, to the point of threatening its legitimacy. We have, above all, seen a huge decline in the share of votes going to the two leading parties, from 97 per cent in 1951 to 65 per cent in 2010, a record postwar low. Under the current system, parties with less than 40 per cent of the votes are potentially able to win large majorities in the House of Commons. Thus, the House risks becoming so unrepresentative of the preferences of electors as to lose its legitimacy. Ultimately, that threatens the effectiveness of government, as well. Under the alternative vote, however, candidates would need to obtain the support of a majority of constituents. That is highly likely to increase the representation of currently under-represented voters.’
The case is so compelling that I write to the Liberal Democrats in Cambridge asking for 100 pro-AV badges and some pens to boot. Their web site says this stuff can be had for free, though I told them I was quite willing to pay for it. I have to be in the UK to attend a exclusive actors’ party on the roof of the National Theatre and there seems no better place to undertake some effective propaganda work. I will pin an AV badge on the lapel of Maureen Lipman, or someone even more famous…
Unfortunately, there is just one hitch. It being the Liberal party that backs the AV, they don’t get it together to send me the badges. You just know that if you had phoned Tory HQ and asked some random Sloane for 500 Shoot the Badgers stickers, they would have been sent round the same day. If the revolution goes pear shaped on 5 May, my liberal comrades, do not blame me.
This wikipedia entry on the Alternative Vote system is helpful, and tells you all the places where the system is already employed.