Bishops, AV and a depressing dose of 'naysaying'

By Simon Barrow
February 2, 2011

A very interesting debate has been going on about the Alternative Vote in the last 24 hours, since ten Church of England bishops (three of them retired) came out in support of an empowering reform of the system at the upcoming referendum on 5 May 2011.

As we reported this morning, among those speaking out, Bishop Alan Wilson declared: "One basic moral question is about truth. Most arguments adduced in favour of current arrangements are simply, demonstrably false. We are told it always yields simple majorities, lightweight government, and a high degree of accountability. It is currently doing none of those things.”

John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds also said: "I believe that there is a strong moral case for reform of the voting system and that AV is a considerable improvement on first past the post."

Rather than engage with the debate, some people have decided instead to deny that the bishops are making a moral point - despite the fact that they have explicitly said they are.

Others have pointed to a blog by John Hayward of the Jubilee Centre voting reform which tries to make a case against AV. The article is full of holes and flaws, as we pointed out. The most major one is that it is based in large part on the idea that Canada uses AV. It doesn’t. It uses our system, First Past the Post.

This is a rather major blunder. Mr Hayward seems to have fallen for the misinformation being promoted by the Conservative Party that AV leads to more coalitions. Actually, it doesn’t - as the recent IPPR report pointed out. In Australia they have had two hung Parliaments since 1920. In the UK we have had four in that time. Canada, of course, has been hamstrung by a hung Parliament for years, which John Hayward points out. The only problem is that he rather strangely believes this is because of AV. It isn’t, it’s because they have First Past the Post!

But the perhaps most disturbing argument is that we should concentrate on alleviating poverty, rather than constitutional reform. Apart from assuming some kind of zero-sum perspective on political engagement, as if involvement in one concern displaces another, this completely misses the point that there is a very important link between the two issues.

Stephen Doughty, Former Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for International Development, has written insightfully about how AV could affect the agenda for the developing world. 

And as my colleague Jonathan Bartley has already highlighted, many groups working on behalf of some of the most vulnerable and disempowered people are backing the Alternative Vote, because they recognise the benefits that it could bring to those with whom they work (and not just in the UK).

From the World Development Movement, seeking justice for the world’s poor, to Operation Black Vote and the Community Sector Coalition, Urban Forum and bassac, these organisations support vulnerable or disempowered communities having a decisively greater say over decisions that affect them.

These organisations recognise that the people they seek to help will benefit from the Alternative Vote system because it hs the potential to widen the political debate in the UK, taking up a greater range of issues that often don't make it onto the agenda during elections. Candidates will have to appeal much more widely, beyond their core vote, in order to get elected. So issues such as debt in the Global South, international aid, climate change, as well as other matters which directly affect those on the sharp end in Britain, will be given greater weight. This is a view reflected by the membership of NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in the "yes" campaign, too. That's why they are there.

Not only could these broader concerns for social, economic and environmental justice more readily make it onto the political agenda (as MPs have to appeal more widely for preference votes), but AV will also begin to challenge the correlation between safe seats, low voter turnout and social deprivation. AV changes the psychology of voters who will vote differently. Turnouts are apt to rise. Parties who have neglected constituencies may suddenly realise that a majority of constituents in fact oppose them, and lose their seats.

As Democratic Audit noted at the time of the 2010 election:

“There is an increasingly obvious relationship between political inequality and other forms of inequality. Almost two-thirds of seats with turnouts below 50 per cent in 2005 had ‘worklessness’ levels of 25 per cent of more”.

They also suggest that this is an area which has been overlooked in the political debate about electoral reform itself:

“There has been remarkable reluctance, not just among the main two political parties, to debate the role of the electoral system as a factor prompting low turnouts, or to discuss the wider implications of all the political parties targeting their efforts at a minority of seats. But this is no longer just a question of political participation. That many of the seats in which local democratic activism and engagement (whether measured by campaigning, spending or voter turnout) are lowest also suffer the highest levels of social deprivation is perhaps the greatest indictment of all against our current electoral system.”

It is also relevant to note who it is that is opposing the change in our electoral system. In a letter in the Independent newspaper earlier this month, Elliot Folan notes:

“Your report and leading article (29, 30 December) reinforces what is becoming clearer as we move closer to this referendum on voting reform, that it is the status quo of left and right (right-wing newspapers, trade unions, politicians, big business) who are gathering in an unholy alliance for a “No” vote because it suits them to keep politicians unaccountable and in their control. Yet it is ordinary people – many from no party at all – who are uniting behind a “Yes” vote.

“It should not be a surprise to anyone that two large unions are planning to join the “No” campaign. It suits the unions to keep Labour in their pocket, which they can do under our broken system but which would be harder under a more democratic system such as the Alternative Vote.

“When only a few thousand voters in marginal seats decide a government, union cash can swing an election. When nearly every seat is marginal, all that matters is what parties stand for. That is how democracy should work.

“That the GMB and Unite have apparently declined to consult their members on this huge decision shows that the union leadership is still cut off from the people it claims to represent. Unions, for all the important role they play in society, are turning their back on the single greatest reform to the Commons since women were given the vote. As you say, they are showing their regressive side.”

As a committed trade union member since 1982 (I am a member of the NUJ, and was at one point a shop steward for one of Unite's predecessors, ACTS/TGWU), it pains me to read that. But it's true. There is nothing forward-looking or progressive about denying people votes and a wider say, and the cosiness of the Labour and union elites has not led to more radical policies and perspectives. Quite the reverse.

Similarly, there are many wealthy and establishment people whose power is in their own pockets who are backing the 'No' campaign and opposing a wider franchise.

The experience of the US, where a new city has adopted AV (known by its other name, “instant runoff”) every year since November 2004, suggests that AV can play a very important role in challenging the power of big money, and other vested interests, while enabling those usually left without a voice to find one. (See also here)

It appears that some would rather pretend that these issues don’t exist. There is room for Christians and other groups of people to have differing views. Of course there is. Personally I would hope, in the long-run, for a more proportional voting system than AV. But the choice between the status quo and a distinct improvement on it, is what we have on offer. I'm not going to let negativity block this opportunity for incremental change, and I'm saddened when 'naysaying' gets in the way of actually having an informed and rounded debate.

Ekklesia's Jonathan Bartley, who is also lending his personal effort to the 'Yes' campaign, will be discussing these issues with others at a Charities' Parliament/ Faithworks debate on 16 February 2011. It should be a stimulating evening.


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.