by Dan Hodges
Stop all the clocks. Put away the ballot boxes. Shutter the polling stations.
The great AV debate, which has raged across the land for the last couple of months, is over. The gods have spoken. Thou shall vote yes.
It was fun while it lasted. Actually, it wasn’t. I’ve fought Tories, and wrestled power from their cold dead hand. Been head to head with Liberal Democrats who know more dirty tricks than a Watergate burglar. I’ve even gone up against fascists; real honest to goodness, “Adolf, ‘gord bless ‘im, great lad, little misunderstood”, fascists.
But I’ve never witnessed such a wave of self-righteous, intolerant, self-obsessed, moral indignation as that cascading from supporters of the Yes to Fair Votes campaign. In fact, Yes to Fair Votes isn’t a campaign. It is a constitutional Jihad.
Leader of the crusade is a man called Jonathan Bartley. He has been prosecuting it with a messianic fervour. In December, he kicked off by writing the following:
“Once in a while, the church gets a chance to atone for its sins. The referendum on the alternative vote (AV) for Westminster elections is a golden opportunity to demonstrate that, unlike the church of 100 years ago, which opposed the suffragettes, it will back the campaign for a fairer electoral system. The episcopal purple should not be of a notably different hue from that worn either by today’s campaigners, or the women pioneers of the early 20th century. There is a strong theological and ethical rationale for voting for reform”.
Many thought the referendum on AV would be about whether or not we need a new way of counting votes. Nothing so prosaic. According to Yes, whether we put a single preference by an electoral candidate, or rank them in order, is a decision of the same moral magnitude as the emancipation of women.
A few other bold predictions have been made for AV by its champions. It will tackle the world debt crisis. Help end climate change. Combat poverty here in the UK. Some system, that alternative vote.
Sadly, as the campaign has unfolded, the Yes campaign halo has started to slip. Like many fundamentalists, Yes-zealots have a little trouble when confronted with non-believers.
A dedicated web site was established describing a member of the No campaign team as a Nazi. It was popluated with AV in-jokes such as, “The other day I met a German gentleman who always told me he’d voted Green. I’m so relieved that I’m not a Jew”. The Yes camaign merrily tweeted it around.
A poster was produced branding Margaret Beckett, John Prescott and other Labour AV opponents as “dinosaurs”. Which they probably would have welcomed had they not also been photo-shopped next to an image of a grinning Nick Griffin. Oppose AV – Nazi. Get the drift?
Last week, the campaigning started in earnest, with David Cameron and Nick Clegg setting out their respective stalls. This was the cue for Yes to roll out their big guns. David Aaronovitch. Steve Richards. Andrew Rawnsley. The long range intellectual artillery of the Yes campaign.
Crash! “The cynical enemies of electoral reform think we’re stupid”, blasted gunner Rawnsley, “many millions of Britons already have extensive experience of using preferential selection because they have been regular voters in Big Brother, Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor. They not only understand this form of voting; they enjoy it”. There you go. Electoral change as brought to you by leading constitutional expert, Simon Cowell.
Bang! A second salvo from Steve Richards: “I suspect those who bother to vote, still in a state of anger about MPs’ expenses and now alarmed by the cuts, will take the chance to bring about what will be billed as a “new politics”. Such a move will also place them on the more fashionable side of the argument. Would you prefer to be with Helena Bonham Carter, Colin Firth and Stephen Fry, or Margaret Beckett, John Prescott and Simon Heffer”?
While we pitiful retches in the beleaguered No camp were still reeling from the brutality of the Firth/Bonham-Carter assault, the merciless Richards hit us again, “it seems to me that the Yes campaign has all the populist arguments and cooler supporters”. Here that, all you hep cats? Want to hang with the cool gang? Get yourself down to a Yes phone bank, Daddy-O.
Wallop! Here comes Aaronovitch: “our X-marks-the- spot FPTP system has forced massive tactical voting on the electorate in marginal seats (how many of us have received leaflets advising us that “only” party A can beat party B, so we’d be mad to vote for party C)? Tactical voting alienates the voter from his or her vote”. Don’t you get it? Putting an X in a box means tactical voting, and that’s alienating. Ranking your second, third, fourth, (in the Oldham by-election there were ten candidates, but you get the drift), favorite candidate, and working out what order to place them in to get them elected, that’s not tactical or alienating, that’s principled and liberating.
But enough debate. The great ones have decreed. We shall have AV. And they shall not be denied.
You want it you see. You may not know you do. But you do. It’s been decided. In fact, it was decided a long time ago. Around the dinner tables of Hampstead and Islington.
Back then it wasn’t called AV or the “new politics”. It was called “the progressive realignment”. A strange creature, it was one of the few issues that could prevent the New Labourites and Compassites chuckin organic rolls at one another. The Blairites saw it as way of neutering the left. The Compassites saw it as a way of neutering the right. The inherent contradiction in these positions were lost by the time people got round to the Columbia rainforest arabica coffee.
Unfortunately, Nick Clegg’s Faustian pact with David Cameron put paid to all that. Or it did for most of us. All that slashing public services, throwing people on the dole sort of stuff.
But not the true believers. For them, the flame still burns bright. Vote “yes” and we can still realise the dream. We can build the “new politics” on the rubble of the old right consensus. Or is it the old left consensus? Mere detail. We’ll get to that when the referendum’s won.
But it’s not a referendum really, is it? It’s not actually a way of gauging the will of the people. We know what the will of the people is. They don’t give a toss about AV. They’re too concerned with paying their mortgages, worrying abut their jobs, dealing with the effects of the cuts. It’s why the supporters of AV fought like wild cats to keep the 40% threshold out of the referendum bill. Why Nick Clegg tried to bounce Gordon Brown into introducing AV without a referendum at all.
The AV “referendum” is nothing more than a parlour game for the liberal intellectual left. They don’t want you to worry about the rules, or the cost or the implications. They just want you to shut up and vote yes.
Because it’s their game. And they intend to win it.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour uncut and works for the “No to AV” campaign.