SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 147 - April 2011

The AV referendum in real life

THE UPCOMING Alternative Vote (AV) referendum will not determine whether Britain progresses to socialism or slides to barbarism; its outcome will probably not even threaten the Coalition. Nonetheless the fact of the referendum raises useful questions about bourgeois democracy.

Clive Heemskerk (The AV Referendum, Socialism Today No.145, February 2011) raises the spectre of the big parties of capitalism using AV to gang up on a nascent workers’ party. Where AV is used, this has not happened. In Australia, the largest country to use AV, each party issues ‘how to vote’ cards indicating their second, third preferences and so on. In the most recent election in Australia where the CWI’s Australian section stood against the main parties, Australian Labour called for a vote for the Socialist Party as third preference. Even Australia’s Liberals marked Socialists preference four.

The failure of the ‘ganging-up’ hypothesis can be explained in two halves, the first of which is tactical voting. While no system eliminates tactical voting – cold mathematics shows the whole question of whether a voting system is ‘fair’ to be absurd – AV enriches the possibilities for tactical voting. The Australian Liberals, for example, marked the Socialist Party number four to undercut the Greens, perceived by the Liberals as the greater immediate threat, by marking that party number five.

The new possibilities for tactical voting under AV negate the argument regarding possible outcomes of the Coventry South East election in 1992. Nobody can say what the result might have been there, however the Jenkins Report, which considered AV in 1998, found that had AV been used in 1992, John Major would never have won a majority even in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. AV, while not truly proportional, can sometimes be more proportional than first-past-the-post, and its disproportionality consistently hurts the Conservatives.

The second half of the failure of the ‘ganging-up’ hypothesis is that historically conspiracies by established parties against newcomers have been against the far right, not the left. In Australia, AV denied the openly racist One Nation party any seats in the lower house of parliament, despite that party receiving the third highest proportion of the vote in 1998. Ganging-up is not unique to AV or to capitalist parties; in the 2010 UK general election, there was no TUSC candidate in Barking and some socialists called for a vote for Labour as part of a programme of keeping the BNP out. Under AV we would not face such an odious decision again.

Capitalist parties are not Marxist parties. They connive not out of class solidarity nor even to preserve capitalism per se but rather for immediate selfish enrichment. Thus they decide their positions not by long-term goals but by pursuit of quick power, money and popularity. And they do not readily form alliances: consider the instability of the two-party coalition here and note the shaky multi-party coalitions seen in continental Europe, fragile even when all partners share essentially identical programmes. Labour’s parliamentary breakthrough in Britain came when the Liberals and Labour entered an electoral pact in 1903; from a class perspective this should have been unthinkable for the Liberals, but their highest concern was crushing the Conservatives to win the election. Ed Miliband has more in common with Nick Griffin than with Keir Hardie; would big capitalist parties today risk the blow to popularity by openly backing the BNP, even while they adopt more BNP policies?

And should the parties of capitalism ever form an alliance, is there better propaganda for us than for some New Labour clone to address a rally in Pontypridd, Sheffield or Walthamstow, and tell thousands of workers not to vote for the militant who fought for their jobs but for the Tories who destroyed them?

Having abandoned the working class, all Britain’s big parties can do to gain advantages over one another is chase money and alter the constitution. Thus, Lenin’s observations on imperial capitalism are repeated in parliamentary politics in the UK and worldwide. Sometimes, as with devolution to Wales and Scotland or reforming the Lords, these changes help the working class at the same time as they entrench an established party. The AV referendum is the latest item in a 15-year-long surge of constitutional manipulations. Whether it makes electoral success for a new workers’ party easier or makes no difference, the fact of constitutional rewriting points to heightening tensions among Britain’s capitalist factions that ensure ruling class division and leave vast possibilities both within and outside the electoral system for a mass workers’ party.

Edmund Schluessel, Cardiff

Clive Heemskerk responds:

EDMUND’S LETTER is welcome as it raises important questions about the article in Socialism Today No.145. Unfortunately, however, he does not clearly say whether trade unionists, socialists, students and working class communities fighting the austerity consensus of the establishment parties should vote yes, no, or not vote at all in May’s AV referendum.

Edmund agrees that the working class can not be indifferent to the struggle to deepen democratic rights and also accepts that AV is not necessarily more proportional – as the Yes to AV campaign claims – than the current first-past-the-post system. But he does seem to argue that, because “AV enriches the possibilities for tactical voting”, it may make “electoral success for a new workers’ party easier” or, at least, “makes no difference”.

Edmund disputes that Dave Nellist would “almost certainly not” have won his Coventry South East seat in the 1992 general election under AV – or, presumably, Terry Fields, who also stood against Labour, in Liverpool Broadgreen. But given the vicious media denigration of Militant, taking their cue from then Labour leader Neil Kinnock, it is hard to imagine Tory voters backing Dave or Terry in a run-off with Labour, with or without a formal ‘preference swap’ agreement. At one point there was a 5,000-strong ‘Liverpool Against Militant’ march during the city council’s struggle against Thatcher.

Edmund’s appeal here to the Jenkins Report and the 1992 general election doesn’t help his case. Jenkins doesn’t say that “had AV been used in 1992 John Major would never have won a majority even in coalition with the Liberal Democrats”. Instead it actually quotes “one estimate suggesting it [AV] would have led to a Conservative majority” of 27 in 1992 (paragraph 84).

Edmund’s main point is to dispute the argument that AV gives a greater opportunity than first-past-the-post for the capitalist parties to overcome their differences – which he agrees exist even when they “share essentially identical programmes” – to ‘gang up on a workers’ party’ by swapping preferences. He points to the experience of Australia, but what does it really show?

A House of Commons Research Paper, Voting Systems: The Jenkins Report (December 1998, p65), points out that AV in fact “encourages alliances between parties since each can put up candidates without fear of splitting the vote”. It then concedes that this affect “can discriminate against anti-system parties which cannot find allies” and, quoting a study by Richard Rose (in Democracy and Elections, Bogdanor & Butler, 1983), that AV “has adversely affected Labour representation in the House of Representatives in Australia for this reason”.

This refers to the Australian Labour Party when, like its British counterpart, it was a capitalist workers’ party, with pro-capitalist leaders but with a working class base that meant it was not fully under the control of the ruling class – not to the situation today. But it confirms the arguments made in Socialism Today about the 1972-75 Australian Labour government and how AV, in a period of heightened class polarisation, ‘encourages’ the capitalist parties precisely to ‘form alliances’ – to ‘gang up’ – against a mass workers’ party.

Edmund refers to the November 2010 Victorian state elections when, in the one seat contested by the CWI’s Australian section, the Richmond district, “even Australia’s Liberals marked Socialists preference four” out of five candidates. One difference with the AV system proposed for Britain is that Australian voters have to rank all candidates in preference order to cast a valid ballot. But most significant, as the Australian Socialist Party argued, was the state-wide “collusion of the two major parties in blocking the Greens via a preference deal”. (Ruling Labour Party punished at Victorian state election,, 6 December 2010)

“Despite the fact that the Greens pose no threat to the capitalist system, big business would prefer to maintain a two-party system”, the Australian Socialist Party wrote, to avoid “opening up space for other parties to develop”. The Greens polled 11.2% of the state-wide vote but did not win a single one of the 88 seats contested.

No electoral system, of course, can ultimately stop the development of a mass vehicle of working class representation. Edmund argues that “Labour’s parliamentary breakthrough in Britain came when the Liberals and Labour entered an electoral pact in 1903” – only five Labour MPs elected in 1906 faced Liberal opponents – but this downplays the profound shifts in consciousness, particularly after the Taff Vale judgement assault on trade union rights, that lay behind Labour’s emergence and the demise of the Liberals. The anti-cuts struggle can be a similar era-defining development.

Electoral politics involve many tactical considerations, including whether to fight particular electoral contests against far-right or even fascist candidates. Trotsky, for example, while arguing for a united front of the Social Democrats and the Communist Party (KPD) to deal with the Nazi menace, nevertheless defended the right of the KPD to contest elections independently against the Nazis.

There are tactical questions around the AV referendum too: Edmund lightly dismisses the impact a No victory – a massive blow to the Lib Dems – could have in undermining the coalition. But there are also principles involved. Not to bolster the myth that AV is inherently ‘fairer’ or more democratic – not to spread ‘democratic illusions’. And to explain how it will be used by the capitalists – if not to stop localised ‘protest votes’ today – to try and block, on the parliamentary plane at least, a mass workers’ party of the future. There is no case for a Yes vote.


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