A polling station

The proposal to hold the AV referendum on the same day as local and devolved elections next year has put Labour in a spin. One Labour politician is quoted in the Guardian saying:

“I am going to be put in the impossible position next May of campaigning to remove the Liberal Democrats on my local council three days of the week, and then join forces with the same Liberal Democrats to call for a change in the voting system for the Commons for the remaining days of the week. It is totally incoherent.”

The logic of this position is that if another political party must be criticised and attacked, it must be criticised and attacked without reservation, on every issue, everywhere. But, in an era of multi-level governance, is this really sustainable?

After all, in Scotland, Labour has sided with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats against the nationalists, in Wales, it is formed up against the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats but with the nationalists, and in Westminster after the recent general election, Labour’s plan was to go into coalition with the Liberal Democrats and secure the tacit support of the nationalists from Scotland and Wales in order to keep the Conservatives out. Confused? You will be.

The reality is that different political parties do agree with each other on some issues, and it is absurd to deny it. The absurdity of the statement “all of the other parties are all bad” is even more pronounced in a multi-level system where political parties have to form all kinds of different coalitions and arrangements for all kinds of different reasons from time to time. For example, the ease with which a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition at Westminster has addressed economic and commercial matters is no surprise to those people who had noted their respective MEPs working very constructively together on such matters in the European Parliament for years.

Of course, the reason why political parties have to adopt the pretence that “all of the others are all bad” is because that is what the First Past The Post electoral system requires. It rewards candidates that refuse to acknowledge the strengths of others and punishes those that do. In a two party system, such as in the United States, this characteristic of FPTP might not matter – because it is true that all of the others are all bad – but once there are more than two parties, and thus the expectation of shifting coalitions, it does not work in a multi-level democracy. (It is arguable that it does not work for a single tier of democracy, too, but that would be outside the scope of a blog on federalism.)

The irony is that the Labour politician I quoted above is a supporter of AV, an electoral system whose chief advantage over FPTP is that it does away with the “all of the others are all bad” philosophy and acknowledges the reality that party X might prefer party Y to party Z. It is the need to play by the culture of FPTP that brings about the incoherence of which he complains.

It would be a pity if this unwelcome aspect of British political culture might serve to prevent change to the electoral system that in turn sustains that unwelcome aspect of British political culture. It is a vicious circle which we need to break out of.

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