On Thursday, the British people will have the chance to embrace—or reject—a new voting system.
In 1986, the New Republic asked its readers to send in examples of boring headlines. Once they responded, Michael Kinsley noted that a “favorite genre of boring headline is the one gravely informing you that a development you weren’t aware of and don’t care about has reversed itself.” Examples included the reassuring “University of Rochester Decides to Keep Name,” the entirely expected “Dramatic Changes Fail to Materialize on Hill,” the apparently meaningless “Nepal Premier Won’t Resign,” and the downright poignant “Surprises Unlikely in Indiana.”
Nevertheless, in the very same week that, according to estimates by the experts at the Daily Show, “trillions” of journalists have descended on London in order to report on something totally unimportant that did happen, namely the Royal Wedding, here’s my headline:
Historic Voting Reform Unlikely in UK
(important thing probably won’t happen very far away)
Now, I haven’t given up hope—that people will read this article, or that the Yes on AV campaign will beat the odds (literally: they were 11/2 at Ladbrokes last I checked) and prevail. But things aren’t looking too good.
Let’s back up. The United States has only two political parties of any real size, and, despite Ross Perot, a few remaining Naderites, and occasional media freak-outs about Michael Bloomberg, is unlikely to develop a third anytime soon. Many countries, particularly those with parliamentary systems (as opposed to the U.S., which has an executive/legislative system), have many parties of various sizes, and governments are usually or always formed by coalitions of several of these parties.
The U.K. has always been an odd in-between case. It has a parliamentary system, and in theory hung parliaments—situations in which no single party has an outright majority, in the British case more than half of the 650 seats at Westminster—are possible in every single election. But in practice, the voters have returned a hung parliament only three times since the Parliament Act of 1911, the revolutionary bill passed by the Liberal Party which came close to fully democratizing Britain and stripping peers in the House of Lords, many hereditary, of most of their remaining powers. (They can still slow down bills, notoriously the ban on fox-hunting championed by Tony Blair, but can be overruled.)
So since the decline of the Liberal Party and its replacement by Labour as the leading party of the British Left, the Conservative and Labour parties have traded power in roughly the same way as Republicans and Democrats in the United States.
For most of this time, smaller parties have pushed for voting reforms that would allow them more seats and more power. The Liberal Party, which gradually morphed into the SDP-Liberal Alliance in the 1980s and then into the Liberal Democrats through the 1990s until today, seemed to most to be increasingly irrelevant. But after the chaotic election of 2010, the first to feature debates between the leaders of the three largest parties, the Liberal Democrats and their leader Nick Clegg—who exploded into the public consciousness following his first debate performance and was, now-infamously, dubbed “more popular than Churchill”—were forced into a coalition with the Conservatives in order to achieve a parliamentary majority.
In many ways the Liberal Democrats would have been a much better fit for a coalition with Labour, as both were historically, well, liberal. The biggest split between the two parties had come over the Iraq War, which Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair had strongly favored and the Conservatives had endorsed, leaving only the Lib Dems opposing it. But, like liberal Democrats in the U.S., many base Labour supporters had always been against the war, and there was little doubt that as long as the hugely unpopular Labour leader Gordon Brown left office, which he had agreed to do, a Lab-Lib coalition could have worked ideologically.
The problem was: they didn’t have the votes. So even though Clegg, after his meteoric rise, had suffered a humiliating result in the election, in which the Lib Dems actually lost seats, he held the power in the hung parliament that followed. And even while publicly saying otherwise, he secretly negotiated with Labour to form the Lab-Lib “progressive coalition” many had dreamed of. But the numbers weren’t there.
So in return for making the youthful, centrist Tory leader David Cameron Prime Minister, Clegg got the historically meaningless job of Deputy Prime Minister, no major concessions on policy from the Conservatives, and the chance to be universally reviled for endorsing the vicious cuts and “austerity budget” which were the centerpiece of the Conservative Chancellor George Osborn’s platform and of the new government’s agenda but which violated almost everything the Lib Dems had promised before the election.
And Clegg’s deal got the Lib Dems one other thing—a chance to lose in Thursday’s referendum. To be blunt about it.
The Liberal Democrats and the “third parties,” in American parlance, that came before them had long believed that their route to relevance lay through an overhaul of the “First Past The Post” (FPTP) voting system. What they wanted, and had campaigned for in the past, was a radically different system of proportional representation (PR), the single-transferable vote (STV), and multiple-member constituencies (no acronym I’m aware of). Here, for example, is a classic video of John Cleese arguing for such a system in a 1987 Party Political Broadcast:
What they got instead in 2010 was a nationwide vote on the adoption of an intermediate approach, which Nick Clegg himself is often claimed to have derided in the past as “a miserable little compromise” (he disputes that that’s what he meant) known as the Alternative Vote (AV).
AV is reasonably simple, as the “Yes to Fairer Votes” campaign, as it’s called, has spent the last few weeks trying to tell people: instead of voting for one candidate, you rank as many as you want to. If no candidate gets 50% of the first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and his or her supporters’ second-choice votes are reallocated, and so on until one candidate has more than half the total votes cast. It’s not particularly complicated, although it’s not nearly as straightforward as FPTP.
If you prefer an explanation in cartoon form, here’s one posted at the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign’s website:
The Alternative Vote is fairer. And it would be great for the Liberal Democrats.
But here’s the thing: in the coalition agreement Clegg and Cameron signed, the Conservatives promised to pass a bill scheduling the AV referendum for May 5, but also said that they could campaign against a new voting system. And that’s what they’ve done: the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Home Secretary and the Business Secretary, are now campaigning against each other. And the campaign has gotten vicious.
Clegg is now incredibly unpopular, especially in the wake of his support for one of the most controversial of the Coalition’s austerity measures—a large increase in tuition fees for colleges, which the Liberal Democrats had highlighted before the election as something they would never support, even signing a pledge not to raise tuition fees. Oops. Now the “No to AV” campaign, with the support of his supposed partner in government David Cameron, is demonizing Clegg to turn voters against AV.
With a host of fairly incoherent arguments, many untrue—AV is confusing! AV will cost more! it’s not fair, the same way a horse coming in second and winning isn’t fair! and, most of all, Nick wants you to vote Yes!—the No campaign has pulled into a substantial lead in the polls. So, that headline again:
Historic Voting Reform Unlikely in UK
The history of disappointment for supporters of the Liberal Democrats is very, very, very, very long indeed, especially their stunning loss of seats in the 2010 General Election after Clegg had briefly catapulted them ahead of Labour in the polls following the debates. Labour’s new leader Ed Miliband, incidentally, formally supports AV but a majority of Labour MPs say they oppose it; mostly they’re enjoying the spectacle of government ministers campaigning against each other, a common spectacle in countries used to coalition governments but brand new in the UK.
And many wonder if the coalition can endure, or Clegg himself can survive as leader of his party, if the Liberal Democrats suffer a once-in-a-generation defeat on the central piece of their agenda—the one that’s supposed to make it possible for them ever to have a chance to enact the rest.
For Cameron, the stakes are lower but still considerable. If the Alternative Vote wins out after this hard-fought campaign, it will be despite attacks by Tory-backed “No to AV” campaigners which many Lib Dems think are over the line, especially when used against coalition partners. And the consequences in terms of electoral outcomes, while impossible to predict, may endanger Conservative MPs in currently safe seats, who will then be none too happy with Cameron, who some already suspect is “too close” to Clegg.
The school tuition row has so weakened Clegg that Cameron may secretly be hoping to lose while doing enough that it cannot be claimed he didn’t try: if Clegg collapses, so does the government, triggering a “snap election.” With Labour currently leading in the polls, that could be disastrous for the Conservatives.
It’s all very complicated. But in the end, even though “No” is in the long term a vote for the status quo, in the short term it could have a bigger impact by creating an identity crisis among the Liberal Democrats, who are already hemorrhaging voters to Labour.
Whether or not the Tory-Lib Dem, Cameron-Clegg odd-couple pairing outlasts the royal match of William and Kate remains to be seen. It’s a wedding of far more significance, the fate of this marriage likely depends not on the exchange of vows at Westminster Abbey last Friday but on a hard-fought exchange of ideas that will climax at the ballot box this Thursday.
Harris Mercer is a new resident of Boulder and a native of New York City. He served as National High School Director with Students for Barack Obama at Obama for America throughout the Democratic presidential primaries in 2007 and 2008. At Bennington College in Bennington, VT he got to study both his obsessions: politics and Shakespeare. He can be reached at harrismercer [at] gmail [dot] com and wants you to go to http://whatthefuckhasobamadonesofar.com.
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