Political Promise

Meh To AV

In Will Obeney on April 18, 2011 at 8:49 am

Self-confessed politics geek Will Obeney just cannot get excited about the alternative vote referendum. Is it the system, is it the campaigns, or is because no-one else really cares?

I’m not saying yes to AV. Neither am I saying no. The referendum is a sham; it is a waste of money, a waste of time, and a waste of political activism. We are being subjected to it purely because the Conservatives needed to give the Liberal Democrats something in return for surrendering most of their principles. It is motivated by politics and not by a desire for democracy. We are effectively being conned into thinking that this referendum is a good idea.

British democracy is based on the idea of Parliamentary sovereignty, where there are no limits to the legislature’s jurisdiction. Parliament can change itself, it can change the legal system (or even remove it entirely) and it can force the queen to abdicate. Of course, she would have to give assent to the legislation, but it would be difficult for her to refuse. Referendums undermine Parliamentary sovereignty. They take the decision out of the hands of MPs and into the hands of the public. It forces me to ask the question: what is the point of having politicians to run the country for us if they decide to avoid making the tough decisions? At general election time, it stops us from making balanced decisions on how well governments have behaved.

Most countries have rules embedded into the constitution which stipulate that there must be a referendum for any constitutional change. This is ridiculous and poses the risk of stunting positive constitutional reform because the government are in fear of losing the referendum. But we are seeing the United Kingdom heading in the same direction. Tony Blair had four devolution referendums, and David Cameron has promised a referendum if any further powers are transferred to the European Union. I would go as far to say that we should have a law in this country which bans referendums completely. They are not compatible with our political system and can hinder democracy instead of enhancing it.

Not only are referendums inherently flawed, the question being posed in the forthcoming one is barely worthy of division in the Commons lobby, let alone the second ever nationwide referendum in the United Kingdom. Put simply, the Alternative Vote will have very little effect on anything. The Liberal Democrats will get a handful extra seats, and the Conservatives will get a handful less. The Guardian puts this into perspective. Note the difference that a Single Transferable Vote system would make: the third party would almost triple their share of the seats. That is a real difference. So is it worth spending £91 million on a referendum on a minor issue when it could just face a free vote in Parliament at a cost of £0? MPs are supposed to represent us, after all.

The AV referendum was passed in the ‘Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Act 2011’. The second part of the Act – as the name implies – changed the nature of the country’s constituencies. It has evened them out in terms of population and increased most of them in size. Because of this, there will 50 fewer MPs in the House of Commons. As a result, the executive will become even more dominant. According to a recent Committee report, 141 members (22% of the Commons) have some role in the government. That percentage will increase to almost a quarter after the next election. So the constituency reforming will have a far larger effect on how our democracy works than the Alternative Vote. Yet we are being told to decide about one and not the other. This clearly shows that referendums cannot work in Britain and that this particular referendum is – in relative terms – about as pointless as a tax break for Bill Gates.

Don’t know how to vote in the AV referendum? Read Political Promise’s definitive guide.

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