What the AV debate tells us about the condition of UK politics
How dim is the condition of British politics right now? From my perspective ‘trust’ in politicians remains low. Interest in British politics seems not a lot higher. For the first time in history, the social network gives us a pretty accurate read-out of viewers’ responses to political interviews and debates. From my Twitter account I can read the frustration of many with the average political interview. They hate politicians who, when asked one question, answer another. They hate the personal attacks that substitute for policy discussions. ‘Why can’t politicians answer straight questions with straight answers?’, ‘Too many have been media trained to avoid an honest encounter with anyone’. These are a few random responses from both blogging and social networking.
So a profound question of the British people is being asked on the backs of local and regional elections. Let’s exclude Scotland and Wales, where devolved elections take place on 5 May. Here, at least there is a motivation that will lead to a reasonable turn out within which it will be natural to ask the referendum question. One of the less discussed aspects of reform in the UK has been the undoubted success of devolution in Scotland and Wales.
Let’s instead concentrate on the most wounded sector of British governance – English local authorities. It is not unusual for turnout in these election to register at lower than 30 per cent. It is pretty rare to top a 50 per cent turn out. Think of it, fewer than half the people you live amongst bother to engage in elections that supposedly deal with all your local issues. Except, they don’t. Successive governments of both Labour and Conservative stripes have systematically invaded and starved local authorities – reducing powers, budgets, and responsibilities. They are permitted to raise no more than 20 per cent of their revenue. The remaining 80 per cent allows Central Government to manipulate them at the stroke of a Ministerial pen. No wonder only a minority of Council Tax payers ever vote.
Into this politically bankrupt void, Central Government cynically tips a vote on voting reform for the country’s Central Government. London doesn’t even have local elections on 5 May. So you have a complex issue battling for air against the simplicity of local need. No wonder few have a clue about what it’s all about.
But last night I witnessed a breath of fresh air – a hint of how things could be. I chaired two Labour stalwarts, two former Home Secretaries in John Reid and Alan Johnson. They debated electoral reform – they were polite to each other, charming even, informed about what they believed in, passionate about espousing it. I reckoned Reid’s best ‘No’ point was the fact that the only country of any size to embrace AV was Australia. I reckoned Alan Johnson’s best ‘Yes’ point was his assertion that no emerging democracy – from South Africa to Eastern Europe has embraced ‘first past the post’. The encounter was devoid of insult. Maybe it was that they knew and trusted each other – but it was political fresh air. I haven’t enjoyed a studio one debate involving two British politicians so much in years.
Somehow, methinks, we need much more than mere voting reform to put the country’s politics and governance to rights. In any case, if we are to be asked, we should be offered a more intelligent choice than the two systems on offer.