Saturday, May 07, 2011

on democracy and the 2011 UK electoral referendum


The results of the referendum on whether to change the UK electoral system from First Past The Post to the Alternative Vote have now been counted and the data is available from the Guardian website. The headline claims that the "Yes2AV" campaign suffered a "thumping defeat". Lets look at the data a bit more closely and see if it backs that up. 

A numerical summary of the results shows the following:


On these grounds the "thumping defeat" seems a reasonable claim. However, I'm an advocate of democracy being based upon the votes of the entire electorate. If you multiply the percentage of votes by the turnout you get the following:

Electorate                           44,481,131

Turnout                                     43.3%

% of electorate voting Yes          13.2

% of electorate voting No            28.4

By these standards neither campaign was close to persuading a majority of the people to support them. I consider this result, rather than representing a rejection of AV, to represent a rejection of the referendum. Let me restate that plainly and in bold text:
28.4% of the electorate is not a majority and the results of this referendum cannot be considered to represent "the will of the people".

So what does this referendum show? Much criticism had been leveled at the referendum even before it took place- specifically the lack of a real choice of alternative electoral systems on the ballot. AV has been broadly rejected by campaigners for electoral reform (punkself included) as being just as unproportional as FPTP. Another criticism was that the sole question posed on the ballot was which of the two voting systems the voter preferred. No option was given to register support, or otherwise, for electoral reform . Its a certainty that a fraction of the electorate didn't vote because they supported electoral reform but not AV. The money and effort that went into organising this referendum, the campaigning and analysis, the column inches and news slots, the rhetoric, posturing and agitation; all of that has been utterly wasted. And in the midst of a climate of apparently desperate austerity that is being used by certain parties to justify tearing the heart out of our society. (It would be wrong of me to say that all of that effort has been completely wasted- for those same sociopathic parties they have been a most useful diversion from the real issue I identified).

I could sit here all day pulling reasons for low electoral turnouts out of my arse but I think it far more helpful to opine that what this referendum has shown us is that our democracy is exactly as broken as I keep saying it is. Most commentators are fantastically indifferent to the fact that we are being governed by a coalition between two parties that collectively gathered just 38% of the electorate's approval. I am stunned by the readiness with which the broader commentariat are prepared to ignore the fundamental injustices of UK politics and happily conduct their dissections, post-mortems and what-iffery precisely within the framework of the current electoral paradigm. If people don't care about the democratic framework within which society is built then any other issue about which they profess to care is irrelevant, a Straw Man for their disengagement with reality. Pick your metaphor of choice: Fiddling while Rome burns, rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, pissing in the wind, etc. The obvious solution is for voting to be made compulsory, necessitating some sort of national referendum to change the electoral sys . . . . Oh. 


  1. Compulsory voting only makes sense if there's a "None of the Above" option. The casting of a vote involves transferring your voice to another person... giving someone else the right to make decisions on your behalf. I have never failed to make the trip to the polling station for an election in which I have a right to participate. But I have often spoiled my ballot because there was nobody listed in whom I had sufficient trust to allow them to make decisions on my behalf.

    Maybe I take this stuff too seriously, but I'm damned if I'm going to legally declare that Mr. X has the right to speak on my behalf when Mr. X stands for everything I despise. And sadly, in many of the elections in which I could have cast a vote, that was true of all the candidates.

    So compulsory voting without some kind of "None of the Above" option winds up being a tyranny in which people may be forced to transfer their voice to someone who will use it to condemn them.

  2. Hi Jim, I was hoping you'd read this after our last contretemp over compulsory voting. I am totally happy for there to be a "none of the above" option on a compulsory ballot. I should state too that I don't believe CV is some sort of silver bullet for all of our society's ills. Its just an easy example of a way in which the UK democratic system could be made more democratic. As I subtly suggest at the end of the post, there's no way it would ever come aboutin our current system because that is designed to be so very resilient to reform at every level. The only way the UK is ever likely to see reform is if misgovernment leads to the national situation deteriorating to the point of revolution. I imagine that will occur in ten to twenty years' time.

    I enjoy dreaming about the perfect democracy, i.e. the perfect system of rule by the people. I've blogged about this before, you might remember, mentioning Alistair Reynolds' sci-fi novels about the Glitter Band and their system of real-time direct democracy. I don't think that such a system is too far removed from what is currently achievable. On your point about declaring who has the right to speak on your behalf, I am quite opposed to representative democracy as I believe it encourages people to detach themselves from politics. The idea that someone else is looking after things on your behalf is comforting but vulnerable to exploitation. I advocate a mixed system of direct and representative democracy along the lines of the Swiss model, whereby a representative is entitled to wield your vote on a day-to-day basis unless you yourself consider his position unsatisfactory, in which case you can commandeer your vote and place it as you see fit, against the wishes of said representative. This offers the best of both worlds: if your representative is working in alignment with your personal politics you have nothing to do but follow his actions approvingly. If you disagree your vote can be registered in some simple fashion- I believe in Switzerland you still have to go to your local government office to register but I see no reason why a simple online system can't be established.

    This isn't particularly revolutionary stuff. The advantage is that the entire population can influence the political environment on a daily basis, instead of every few years, at whatever level, as currently in the UK. That very connection would encourage people to take more interest in politics. That would, in turn, produce a demand for reliable political media. I am sure there are negatives associated with this proposal too. Reactionary politics would become prominent. I like to think that this would be a passing phase that must be experienced before people become sensitive to the unsavoury nature and dysfunctional outcomes of such politics. Call me a humanist but I like to think that the better and more accurately our wishes are represented in government, the more functional that government becomes. The more functional that government becomes, the better it serves the people.


Feel free to share your opinions of my opinions. Oh- and cocking fuckmouse.