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There can be no one who voted or campaigned for the Alternative Vote who believed it to be anything other than a first step towards full reform of the electoral system. Initially, Nick Clegg's petulant description of it as a “miserable little compromise” seemed an example of the perfect being permitted to become the enemy of the possible. However, it now seems that the pursuit of incremental change may have turned out to be a mistake.
It is important now for progressives to be realistic about the manner in which the whole AV debate was conducted. The hijacking by party political interests of what should have been a wider national conversation about the best means of revitalising our democracy is a manifestation of the conservatism which has always been inclined towards fighting the last war. It also points up the tendency towards timidity with which reformers, anxious not to appear 'extreme', react to that entrenchment.
In case we had not already noticed, the electoral outcomes of last Thursday are a reminder that the old system of Labour/Conservative duopoly with a third party serving as a receptacle for protest votes, is long past. We now have a diverse, devolved and plural political culture in which Nationalists have formed a majority administration north of the border, the Greens control Brighton and Hove City Council, Labour - in opposition in England - governs in Wales, while a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition is in place at Westminster. The old structures are being eroded and that reality has not yet been taken on board by the tribalists.
In this new reality, the continuum of progressive to reactionary will - and should - retain its party political divisions. But perhaps these now need to become markers rather than citadels. The current disassociation from, and disenchantment with, the political process and its practitioners can only serve the interests of power and privilege. There is an urgent need for reform which will arrest and reverse that disillusion if we are to conduct our common life with justice and with the fullest possible participation of all our citizens.
The identification of party identity with electoral procedure is a dead end which elevates the vested interests of politicians over the engagement and true representation of the people. The Liberals have always been associated with electoral reform. The Conservatives continue to be viscerally opposed to what they see as a threat to their hegemony. Labour, historically anti, is now divided – a situation which, despite the reactionary eruptions of some of its more rigid members, at least tacitly acknowledges that there does not have to be a 'party line' on questions of democratic, electoral and constitutional change. That is to be welcomed.
We desperately need a more proportional and therefore representative Parliament. This cannot be isolated from genuine reform of the second chamber or from the need to examine our unwritten and outmoded constitution in an age of devolved power.
Those who have worked so hard for the 'Yes' campaign over the last few months deserve some R&R. But then there must be a re-grouping, a willingness to learn from what has passed and a determination to take forward the cause of radical reform. AV is dead. The period of mourning should be short. It is time for a bolder vision of our democratic future.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet