Thursday, April 21, 2011

What if they gave an election and no-one came (4)

So: why are the "no" camp putting forward arguments which they know (unless they really are lunatics) are not true?

The easy, cynical answer would be "self interest". The Fluffy Bunny party wants a system that will favour Fluffy Bunnies, and the Swivel Eyed Warmongers and Smug Posh Racists want a system which will favour the Warmongers and Racists party.

The Fluffy Bunnies currently argue that  a system in which 25% of the votes equates to 25% of the power is preferable to one where 25% of the votes equates to 0% of the power, but since that's not on offer, they'll settle for one where 25% of the votes equates to 1%, or 5%, or 10% of the power. But the Smug Posh Racists and the Mad Warmongers are quite happy with a system where 49% of the votes equates to 100% of the power. Why would they change it? But if the Fluffy Bunnies believed for one moment that they could win under First Past the Post, they'd abandon their principled commitment to P.R pretty damn quick. When it looked as if Labour could not win an overall majority, Tony Blair argued that a pact with the Liberals -- the price of which would certainly have been electoral reform -- was morally right: but once he looked like getting an overwhelming majority by himself, he mysteriously forgot that the Liberal party existed.

But I don't actually think that this is the reason, or the main reason, that most of the Red party and all of the Blue party hate the idea of constitutional reform. I think the real reason is simpler and sadder.

I don't think that most politicians really care, very strongly, about their parties, and certainly not about their parties' policies or ideologies. How could they? The Red party and the Blue party are now virtually indistinguishable -- which is to say, indistinguishable to anyone who isn't a member of the Red party or the Blue party. Oh, party animals who read this column will take up their pens to tell me that the Red / Blue party is evil in all respects and whatever the Blue / Red party may have done in the past, the Red / Blue party would have been far, far worse. Unemployment going up? Yes, but it would be going up faster under Red / Blue. Involved in three pointless foreign wars? Yes, but Blue / Red would have got us involved in five! Blue / Red party reintroduced stoning for adultery? Yes, but the Red / Blue party would have introduced crucifixion. Freud called it "the narcissism of small differences": as esoteric to someone who isn't a supporter of one of the two big teams as the doctrinal differences between Baptists and Methodists are to someone who doesn't believe in a god of any kind. [*]

I think that what politicians really care about is The Game. One politician may call the other a pinko Stalinist commie working for the abolition of freedom throughout the world, and the other may retort that the first guy is capitalist pig who'd start sending little boys up chimneys if you gave him half a chance. But that's only like one boxer punching another boxer very hard in the face, or one checkers playing huffing the other checkers players king. Once the bout is over, they are the best of friends. When a politician dies, all the others queue up to say how wonderful he was. If Cameron really believed half the things he says about...about whoever the hell's leader of the opposition this week, you can look it up as easily as I can....then he would refuse to stand next to him, have a cup of tea with him, speak to him. He would throw mud in his face whenever he saw him. As a matter of fact, I think that there are lots of people who should be spat on and have mud thrown in their faces if they appear in public: Melanie Phillips, Nick Griffin, people who drive bicycles on the pavement. But Cameron doesn't think that of Thingy, and Thingy doesn't think that of Cameron. It's all theater: like one of those wrestling tournaments where everyone pretends to have a personality but all the moves are planned in advance.  

Some people positively like going to church. They like the smell of incense, they like the music. They like old fashioned social events, home baked cakes and little knitted mittens and terribly old fashioned children's parties -- a social world that somehow got fossilized in the 1950s. Many is the vicar who has lamented that the most trivial organizational change within his parish is resisted with a theological zeal.

"Maybe more young people would come if we held the service at 2PM rather than 10AM?"

"But services have to be at 10PM. It's in Leviticus. Or even if it isn't, it should be. We've always done it this way. WE'VE ALWAYS DONE IT THIS WAY."

There may be some conservative theologians who can give you chapter and verse about why a lady man can preach a good sermon, run the Sunday school, sing in the choir but can't, for ontological reasons, be a priest. But 97% of those who sincerely regret the introduction of female clergy-people do so because it fundamentally changed the social role of the Vicar and the Vicar's wife. Church isn't like wot it used to be in the olden days.

There's nothing terribly wrong with this. Churches depend on people like this, and people like that do lots of good, unglamourous work in their local communities. They never start wars and they hardly ever set fire to Korans. But they do tend to alienate the kinds of people who are quite interested in God but have no real interest in jumble sales.

Similarly, some people like politics. That's why they make it their hobby, or their profession. Oh, doubtless some people join the Swivel-Eyed Warmonger Party because they studied the works of Marx and Spencer and decided to dedicate their lives to securing for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of the industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Doubtless some members of the Smug Posh Racist party originally joined up because they agreed with Milton Keynes that unfettered free markets are the only way to really establish prosperity for all, except the common people. But most of them aren't really in it for that. They're in it because they enjoy the game. They like standing on hustings and kissing babies; they love the noble traditions of the House of Commons, making funny "hear hear" noises and trying to remember exactly how honourable the member opposite is meant to be. At a lower level, they like running fund-raisers and putting leaflets though doors and organizing committees and canvassing votes. Asking three streets if you can rely on their vote next Thursday is great fun, if you like that kind of thing. (This is equally true of the big brave extra-parliamentary demonstrators. Oh, there may be a certain amount of genuine popular outrage spilling onto the streets. But there's also an awful lot of people who are secretly quite pleased that the Tories are back in power because protest marches are such fun.)

The Party is a finely oiled machine, not for winning arguments, but for winning The Game. It isn't enough for someone to support your party: they have to make a positive decision to walk down the road and vote for it. (It will probably be raining. It usually is.) An election doesn't tell you which party had the most supporters: it tell you which party's supporters were most willing to get off their bums and walk to the polling station.

Which may, for all I know, be a very good system: it may very well be that the person who can't be bothered to get out of their armchair doesn't deserve a say in how the country is run, in the same way that Robert Heinlien thinks that anyone who hasn't been in the army doesn't deserve a say in how the country is run, and Richard Littlejohn thinks that anyone whose first language uses a non-Roman alphabet doesn't deserve a say in how the country is run. But it has an unintended consequence:  elections are not about persuading people to vote for you: they're about mobilizing the people who were going to vote for you anyway to stand up and walk down the road. Who goes round to the largest number of supporters houses and says "we notice that you haven't cast your vote, would you like a lift to the polling station?" wins.

Change the system, be it ever so slightly, and the rules of The Game changes. Once my participation in democracy is extended from "put a cross next to the candidate of your choice" to "put the numbers 1, 2 and 3 next to your first, second and third choice of candidate" then it becomes harder for the Labour Candidate to say, as he once did, outside the convenience store at the bottom of Picton Street "Even though you think my leader is a swivel-eyed lunatic, and even if he really did lie about a war, I implore you with all my heart not to waste your vote on the Liberals, because that might let the Tories in." (I paraphrase, slightly. The Liberals were meanwhile sending me hand-written letters imploring me not to vote Labour, because that might let the Tories in.) They would have to start saying "I know that you are a Liberal Supporter, because you believe in personal freedom; but can I ask you to consider the many ways in which Labour has promoted personal freedom, and consider putting us in second place."

To campaign, slightly more, on the issues. And that changes the rules of the Game. And if the Game is what you believe in, that's a hard thing to swallow. 

Don't worry. It is most unlikely that the "Yes" campaign will carry the day in the referendum. Even if they do, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that a "Yes" vote will lead to the 2015 election being fought on AV. If the Yes team wins, I imagine Cameron will point out that the turnout was very low, and that a vote by 30% of the population doesn't imply a clear "mandate" for constitutional change. But he will have a period of contemplation during which he listens jolly carefully and then does whatever his intestines tell him. So the Reds and the Blues will retain their hegemony for few more years. The Great Game -- in which we all agree to pretend that Red are so evil that we have to vote Blue to keep Red out, and that Blue are so evil that we have to vote Red to keep Blue out will carry on.

And the result will be that it won't just be commies and anarchists and cynics who say that they can't be bothered to vote. Faced with increasingly indistinguishable horses more and more people will stop paying attention to the race. Disinterest will be come mainstream. No-one will be able to remember the name of the leader of the opposition. Oh, a few people will still bother to vote, just as few people still bother to morris dance and a few people still bother to renovate old steam engines. But it will be a weird hobby for nutters. And, sooner or later, the whole archaic muddle will get ripped up and chucked in the bin, and someone will thrash out something better. Compulsory voting? Voting via the internet? Regional assemblies? Decentralized power? Regular referenda on specific issues? A directly elected president? Two proportionally elected houses of parliament? Or maybe something more outre: non-professional politicians "called up" to serve a year or two in parliament, like jurors or magistrates? Who knows. But surely, surely surely, in an age of i-pods and interwebs, we aren't going to carry on walking down to a shabby church hall, standing in little coffin shaped urinals, secretly making a stubby little cross on a stubby little bit of paper and then folding it up and poking it in a box?

But change won't come as the result of a new chartist movement. It won't be initiated by the people we now think of as politicians. They'll just wake up one morning and find out that the rest of us have long since stopped paying any attention to their funny little "election" game.

[*] I don't say there is no difference. There is a difference. I believe I could explain it. It has to do with free will, like most things. But I wouldn't expect anyone outside the God club to care very much.

A useful summary of both sides of the argument


Richard Worth said...

It would be interesting to see any response from No voters, who from recent polls seem to have an edge. However, a potential argument is that if AV gives us a broader spread of parties in Parliament rather than the Big Three, no one can form a Government without a Coalition, and you end up either not having a Government at all, like the Belgians, or in hock to a minority interest, like the Tories of old relying on the Ulster Unionists.

NickPheas said...

Who goes round to the largest number of supporters houses and says "we notice that you haven't cast your vote, would you like a lift to the polling station?" wins.

Does this still happen anywhere?

Andrew Hickey said...

Great stuff. A couple of points though.

Firstly, you say nobody wants AV. I actually want it more than most (but not all) forms of proportional representation - I'd prefer STV (AV in multi-member constituencies, so very easy to switch to from AV) but definitely not things like the nightmarish d'Hondt system we use for the European elections. AV isn't so much second worst as second best, and while I'll push for more I'll be happy (if not ecstatic) if we just get AV.

Second, you say that Cameron won't let the result go through. As I understand it, the bill that passed said that the referendum result automatically becomes law (though by-elections between then and the next General Election remain FPTP to avoid a Commons elected on two systems).

Between this and the plans for the Lords (if they ever get finalised - apparently the plan is to have a chamber with 80% elected by STV and the remainder appointed advisers like the bishops etc, who may be able to speak but not vote) we might finally get a somewhat democratic system in by the next election. Which would be nice.

And Nick, yes, that does still happen pretty much everywhere - and it wins elections, too. The Lib Dems have a councillor near where I live with a majority of two. He would have lost if I hadn't gone door-knocking and offering pensioners who couldn't walk to the polling station a chance of a lift.

Gavin Burrows said...

”there's also an awful lot of people who are secretly quite pleased that the Tories are back in power because protest marches are such fun.”

Alas that Nu Labour never gave us anything that we could protest about!

Mike Taylor says he favours AV as an alternative to “the bad old days when it was all about Keeping The Tories Out.”

Which is, you know, fine.

But it occurs to me that what AV explicitly does is quite the reverse. You might feel it makes it easier for you to tick the Green box. But you can, should you choose, tick every single box except for the Blue one. You can quite literally go “anything but that bloke with the crazy thousand yard stare” - something you simply can’t do with FPTP.

Moreover, it seems to me that everyone does vote negatively. It’s not just Party propaganda which only attacks the other sides. Whenever someone tells me how they’re voting and I ask why, it always seems to be some negative explanation. “I am voting Red because if Blue get in they may declare war on France again for the sake of tradition.” “I am voting Blue because if Red get in they may nationalise my comic and DVD collection.” (Voting at all was proposed as a way of keeping the BNP out.)

Which leads to a bit of a conundrum... If AV specifically enables people to vote the way they seem to want to, why does it look like losing the referendum?

Partly it is associated with the Liberals, who are now more unpopular for hanging out with the Tories than the Tories are for being Tories.

Partly, as has been said, it is smear tactics. The Guardian reported Labour campaigner Dan Hodges actively praising the No campaign’s (in his own words) “gutter politics.”

But what kind of smear tactics? Cameron’s statement about his “gut” does indeed sound bizarre. Perhaps we could invent some machine to measure from just how deep in their bowels politicians are speaking, and eliminate the need for all these troublesome elections and referenda.

I think what Cameron means by this and the “un-British” thing is “AV is a fiendishly complicated system devised by pointy-headed bean counters. You wouldn’t like it. It might be clever on paper but it is not for the regular common folks of the land. But luckily you have elected me, Dave, as your leader and representative. I am a common chap and I will protect you from this and and all future attacks of braininess. For I was not elected as Party leader by an almost identical system. One which I would have lost had it been FPTP. No siree.”

I imagine Cameron’s next target will be those TV clip shows, which always seem to have an un-British and mind-bogglingly complicated formula of ranking things in order of preference.

So at least some good will come of this...

Brian's Coffee Spot said...

To answer Richard's point: you could make the argument that we can't have AV because that would lead to more coalitions, but if coalitions are so bad, why stick with First Past the Post, which in the last 28 General Elections, has only delivered a single party majority in the House of Commons 18 times? If having more parties in Parliament is a bad thing, let's ban all parties except the biggest two. That would guarantee majority rule.

You could also pick some different examples of coalition government. I mean, who would want permanent government by coalition? We might end up like the Germans, peaceful and prosperous, already pulling away from recession while we stagger on... That would never do...