Monday, 11 April 2011

Spare a thought for the "thickos"

Political Betting wonders if The No campaign is "too reliant on Andrew Rawnsley's 'thickos'" - a reference to an Observer column from February in which Rawnsley pointed out a demographic split in support for a change in the voting system. While there was a (fairly slender) Yes majority among higher social groups, there was a solid No majority among members of the C2DE classification. "Yes" is also disproportionately represented among younger and more urban voters. No surprises there. "The no campaign," Rawnsley concluded, "will probably not put it so indelicately themselves, but they are calculating that their best hope of preserving first past the post is to mobilise what you could crudely call the Thicko Vote."

The propensity of younger, more affluent, trendier and better educated people to be taken in by progressive-sounding utopian nonsense is nothing new, of course. It would have been on such voters that the Yes campaign would have relied had there been a referendum on the Euro (and thank goodness we stayed out of that one). But I'm not making an argument about the greater political sagacity of the poor, the old and the thick. There is such an argument to be made. I want rather to consider what implications the finding poses for the future of British democracy, were AV to be introduced.

The Yes campaign's most bizarre (or possibly just optimistic) contention is that changing one unfair voting system for another that is equally, but differently, unfair will boost interest in politics, will repair the broken trust between the people and their elected representatives, will somehow make the political process generally more relevant to the turned-off masses. By recruiting a whole bunch of minor celebrities the campaign has sought to capitalise on an anti-politics mood, to give the appearance of a popular groundswell to a somewhat esoteric debate that in truth only excites people who are already political obsessives. It's an ironic strategy, and one that I think is doomed to backfire - if not before referendum day, then afterwards, and for years to come.

Why? Because in a democracy participation matters. The more that people are turned off politics, the less legitimacy the system can claim - and the less accountable politicians actually become. There's a direct link between low voter turnout in recent elections and the scandal that engulfed Westminster over expenses. The Yes campaign seeks to blame "seats for life" for the malaise and posits AV as a solution; but there have always been seats for life - for good and defenisble reasons - and AV will not make them disappear. No system would. At the root of the crisis in confidence is the collapse of party politics as a mass participation activity. There are deep social and structural reasons for this (some of which the government is at least attempting to engage with via the Big Society; unsuccessfully, I predict) but AV will if anything make the problem worse.

That's because AV is inherently complicated. Hard for people to get their heads around. Maybe not hard for you to get your head around, but then you're an over-educated political obsessive, aren't you?

How hard can it be, ask the Yes campaigners, to rank candidates in order of priority? Even Rawnsley's "thickos" could manage that. Well, you've probably received your copy of the Electoral Commission's handy guide to the upcoming referendum. As you may have noticed, the leaflet explains the current system in a couple of sentences.

"The votes for each candidate are put into a pile and counted. The candidate with the most votes wins."

In contrast, the explanation of the Alternative Vote takes 351 words, printed over four pages and entailing the use of three diagrams. The act of ranking candidates may be "simples"; the relationship between that act and the eventual emergence of a winner is less so. In a close contest, everything can depend on the order in which the lower-ranked candidates are eliminated. Applied over the whole country in a general election, AV can increase the likelihood of a hung Parliament or it can exaggerate a landslide. Counting the votes is slower, which will destroy the fun of election night (and election night plays a crucial role in engaging people in politics). A candidate ahead on first preferences pipped at the post when third and fourth preferences are called into play might justifiably feel cheated, as will many of his or her supporters. Who wins and who loses becomes more of a mathematical game - fascinating to pundits, but potentially a real turn-off to mainstream voters.

Who will be most confused by the complexity of AV? Undoubtedly, those older and less-educated voters who in the poll mentioned above disproportionately preferred to keep the current system. Members of lower social groups, presently disinclined to vote (and not just in next month's referendum), yet whose participation is vital in a society that claims to be a democracy, will be further disincentivised by having an opaque voting system foisted on them by the votes of the minority of political junkies who bother to turn out. A change touted as a cure for political disengagement and the domination of a narrow, self-referential elite thus risks producing precisely the opposite.