The AV Referendum

It's difficult to get very worked up about this. Electoral reform has been a mainstay of British political chatter for at least the last hundred years; the arguments have all been had, the passion is all gone, and the various options have long been packaged up for statistically-minded students in our politics faculties. If there is any shade of novelty in the way the question will be posed on the fifth of May, it's only because the change on offer—from the simple plurality system to the alternative vote—is so miserly.

But even a much more thoroughgoing reform would only scratch the surface of Britain's dismally undemocratic politics. The essential problem isn't institutional: it has to do with the class nature of the British state. For the vast majority of the population, effective democracy is something we'll have to create for ourselves—outside the state, and against it.

So there's a case for treating this referendum with silent contempt. If we do that, however, we risk missing the chance to increase (however marginally) our class's freedom to act.

Of course, there's no point wondering which electoral system is abstractly 'fairer'. Our only criterion should be whether the alternative vote would make the Left's task slightly easier, or slightly harder. And it seems clear that the answer is: slightly easier.

Last year, about a hundred parliamentary constituencies were contested by candidates of the Left. This was a valuable exercise in publicizing the existence of a political alternative. In most instances, however, the Left's candidates received (as usual) very low votes. And, under the present electoral system, there's no way of telling whether a Left vote of 1% means that only one voter in a hundred supports the Left—or, instead, whether potential Left voters are 'tactically' backing other parties to avoid 'splitting the vote' and 'letting the Tories in'.

Under the proposed new system, A.V., this obscurity would disappear. Every voter who supported the Left would be able to back its candidates as their first preference, and then to cast a second-preference vote for their favourite among the other parties. It is possible that this would result in a substantially larger vote for Left candidates. And, if it didn't, it would at least clarify the situation for us: we wouldn't be able to cite tactical voting as an excuse any more.

For these reasons, and without any excessive enthusiasm, the C.C.S. advises its supporters to campaign and vote in favour of A.V.

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