Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RANTS!Picture of a judge's wig

Date: 05/05/11

No Alternative

I think it was George Melly who once said that the sign of growing old was when you stopped doing things for the first time and started doing things for what you strongly suspected was the last time.

It's somewhat heartening to me, therefore, to have done something today for the very first time.

I have to the best of my recollection voted in every election (local and state) and every referendum I have been qualified to take part in since way back in the early 1980s. I have done so firstly because I believe that it's important to use your right to vote whenever the opportunity arises because a lot of people have struggled, fought and died to ensure that you can. Secondly (and this is particularly true in elections and other ballots in my union), I think that if you have the right to vote but can't be bothered to use it then you forfeit most, if not all, of any rights you might think you have to complain about the result if it goes against you.

I maintain this position despite the fact that I have never as far as I can remember voted for a winning candidate in a parliamentary election. Local elections, yes. The one referendum I'd voted in before today, yes. But for parliament (be it Westminster or Cardiff Bay)? No, not once.

The main reason for this is due to the ridiculous and disproportionate voting system we have to use for those elections. First Past The Post (FPTP) (or as I tend to call it nowadays, First At The Trough) often means that MPs can be elected to a rather cushy number with high expenses and salaries for up to five years on the basis of securing one third or less of the votes cast. This means that there are parliamentary seats - scores of them - which have not changed party in living memory. They have become nothing more than 'vote banks', rotten boroughs where one party habitually piles up such a proportion of the votes that even fielding candidates against that party seems an exercise in futility. It is no coincidence that those are the seats where turnout is regularly far lower - often embarrassingly so - than in constituencies where there is more of a contest.

This leads to a culture of impunity amongst those candidates who stand for the habitual winners, and this in turn engenders an arrogance on the part of these people, who believe - not without reason in any practical sense - that they have a 'job for life'. This leads in its inevitable course to an even greater disillusionment on the part of those of the electorate in those constituencies who don't want that candidate or that party to claim to speak on their behalf.

As an amateur student of such matters, I made the discovery prior to last year's Westminster election that very nearly three-quarters of all parliamentary constituencies were deemed 'safe seats', taking the standard psephological criterion of defining a 'safe seat' as one where the winning party had a majority of ten per cent or more of the votes cast over the second placed candidate. This means that - barring the sort of seismic shifts we saw in 1983 and 1997 - many people will live their whole lives in a constituency where not only does the incumbent party never change, it never will change, however much that party may never be their choice at all.

It cannot be good for any sense amongst the electorate that their vote matters if they are, for example, a Conservative voter in Bootle or Doncaster North, or a Labour voter in New Forest East or Wokingham. The feeling of permanent disenfranchisement and the consequent disillusionment, taken along with a sense of increasing disgust at the arrogant conduct of politicians in general (in which politicians take it as axiomatic that the political process belongs to them and them alone rather than to us all), leads to the obvious result of a gradual withdrawal from participation in the electoral process by an increasingly large proportion of the population. The same process can be seen in the United States, another country where the legislature is elected on the basis of 'most votes wins even if it's still a minority' - turnout figures there are at least as bad as, if not worse than, in the UK.

The other side of this is that parliamentary elections are won and lost entirely on the basis of the results in a small minority of seats. These tend all to be of a similar socio-economic make-up and are concentrated in suburban areas in central and southern England. So the political parties know that - in order to get the biggest bang for their buck - they need only concentrate their strongest efforts on these marginal constituencies. That these areas tend to be of similar type means that certain kinds of 'message' are seen as key to winning the support of people in those constituencies.

And so it is that the parties' manifestos and general outlook are conditioned by a need to butter-up middle-class, economically and/or socially conservative, 'aspirational' voters and to hell, to all intents and purposes, with the rest; they'll vote the same way they always have done, or so it is - all too often correctly - assumed. This, rather than some substantial shift in the political identification of the populace as a whole, is what has led to the landscape in the UK being dominated by three parties all of whom say what amounts to the same thing, ideologically speaking; namely that globalised market capitalism is the only game in town, and that to look elsewhere for your inspiration for a better society renders you at best obsolete, at worst a threat to the stability of the nation. Again, see the US for how this same phenomenon has operated there for so long that third-party candidates have virtually no chance of ever being elected.

Given all this, therefore, and given the opportunity to vote to change that system, you might be forgiven for thinking that I would use the opportunity today to support a positive change to the voting system for parliamentary elections.

Well, you would have been correct, but only if you count the so-called Alternative Vote (AV) as being a positive change. I don't, and I don't for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, there is no evidence that the results AV would produce would be any less prone to an inflationary advantage to one or other of the main parties; indeed, what evidence can be adduced would tend to suggest that it could make matters worse and give parties with well under 50 per cent of the total vote across the country even bigger majorities than are currently the case under FPTP.

Secondly, there is no evidence to suggest that smaller parties, be they Greens, Socialists or Nationalists of some stripe or other, would find it any easier to be elected. The election of Caroline Lucas as Westminster's first Green MP last year was certainly a surprise, but was down far more to tactical voting amongst those in a very cosmopolitan and politically aware constituency who couldn't face another term of being represented by a New Labour stooge than it was to be attributed to any massive upsurge in support for the Green Party's political message.

This has not stopped those who wish to see the perpetuation of the current loopily inadequate system from scaremongering about how much easier it would be for Greens, 'Commies' or 'Neo-Nazis' to be elected under AV. The argument is - to put it at its kindest - disingenuous. And even if it were true, then shouldn't people, in a democracy, be represented by people who have sufficient support amongst them, however much others elsewhere may disapprove? If people in the East End of London wanted, for example, to be represented by an extreme Islamist, then shouldn't they have that choice? Similarly, if people in parts of the East Midlands of England actually want to be spoken for by someone who believes that The Sun has never set on the Empire and that the best way of defending the National Interest™ is by fortifying Dover to deter The Hun, shouldn't their wishes be acceded to? It's their responsibility and, if and when they find that they have elected a total wanker, they will have the choice whether to re-elect said onanista next time. It's called Democracy, I believe.

Thirdly, AV would mean that real power in the electoral process would remain precisely where it is; in the hands of the party machines. This has led to more self-serving, insolent and indolent non-entities being elected to parliament than any other factor. Get yourself in favour with the apparat of your chosen party and you will be parachuted into the first safe seat which becomes available. That means that people in that constituency who may want to vote for your party but who emphatically do not want to vote for you will be left with two choices: vote for the party but in one of Polly Toynbee's famous 'nosepeg' moments; or not vote at all, either because principle will not allow a vote for any other, or for fear of their chosen party losing the seat altogether.

If you think this is fanciful, then I have just two words for you: Peter Mandelson.

This would not change under AV: the Party decides on who is their candidate, or on the ranking order of those running under their banner and, if you vote for that party, you get whichever candidate has managed to ingratiate him/herself most effectively with the party hierarchy.

If we are ever to break free from the party machinery, then a properly proportional system of representation is an absolute must. A system of Single Transferable Vote with party lists which are fully open (that is, where voters can rank candidates within a party list according to their preferences) is the only way in which we can not only determine as best we can which party should claim to speak for us in Westminster, but which candidate we believe is best for the job as well.

For these reasons and a few more (none of which, incidentally, includes the desire to give that treacherous Orange-Booker Clegg the blow in the 'nads which he truly deserves), when I went into the polling booth this morning I - for the very first time - deliberately 'spoiled' my paper by writing on it the words:


Petulant? Some who should know better would no doubt claim so. But what other option did I have, given that not bothering to vote at all would be a denial of what I hold as a principled position (see the first paragraph of this marathon), or would have identified me in the media imagination as someone who didn't give a flying one what voting system I was permitted to use.

Playing into the hands of those who wish to maintain the status quo? Again, I don't think so. I'm not sure if the tellers for this referendum are required to tally the numbers of 'invalid' papers, let alone break those numbers down by type of 'error', but if not, they should be required to. That might be a pretty good indication of how many do want a better voting system, but are convinced that AV isn't it.

Missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for reform? Once more, I doubt it. Certainly the vested interests who wish to retain the current system will crow over the near-certain defeat of the only alternative currently on offer to us, but their arrogant jubilation will be, I believe, totally misplaced. Consider what will happen from hereon in: the existing system will continue; the tendencies we've seen for that system to perpetuate and promote the increasing insolence of the politicians and to increase the gap in perceptions between the governed and governing will continue to widen; turnout in parliamentary elections will continue to fall and will lead, ultimately, to a crisis of legitimacy for the Westminster system of a degree which even the venal thugs currently in possession of it will be unable to ignore, and which they will be unable to dispel by claiming that today's referendum showed that The People™ don't want reform. This will perforce lead to us being offered - although I concede it may take four or five years - a meaningful choice; perhaps one in which FPTP will not even be on the table, giving us a real chance of reform. Passing AV today would mean that that would be the system we would be stuck with for a generation or more. We cannot afford to delay that long.