Democracy, Theology and AV
Tomorrow the UK is holding its second national referendum in its history. And this one is even more flawed than the first. In 1975, we were asked whether or not we wished to remain a member of the EEC, which we had joined two years earlier. That referendum ought, of course, to have preceded the selling of our birthright and the ‘pooling’ of our sovereignty: the retrospective plebiscite was more about uniting a fractious and fractured Labour Party than genuinely seeking a democratic mandate for winding back a thousand years of history. At least this time we are being asked in advance whether or not we wish to adopt the AV electoral system.
But it is a referendum that nobody wants about a voting system which nobody favours to sustain a coalition which nobody voted for. Just as the 1975 referendum was about internal Labour politics, the 2011 referendum is about internal Coalition dynamics. It is never wise to barter constitutional change for political expediency.
His Grace is not concerned with how Jesus would vote: he’ll leave such insights to the very clever people at Ekklesia who have absurdly instructed believers to vote Yes2AV in order to atone for the sins of the Church. He does, however, look at those who favour AV, and instinctively recoils to oppose them. It is not likely that His Grace could ever agree with Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband or Chris Huhne on a matter. And when it comes to the luvvies and darlings, His Grace would trust the instincts of Labour-supporting Richard Wilson over the inclinations of Stephen Fry and Eddie Izzard any day. Further, Richard Dawkins supports AV, and he is not the most rational or reasonable of people. It is not insignificant that AV is supported by the LibDems, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Green Party, UKIP, Sinn Fein, and the SDLP. These are not concerned with enhancing democracy or with greater participation, but with the means of securing personal electoral and political advantage.
AV, we are told is ‘progressive’. And we are also told that the LibDems are progressive. And Ed Miliband’s Labour Party is progressive. And yet we discern no progress. Indeed, political progress these days appears to consist of an awful lot of moral regress. And how can the abandonment of the trusty, tried and tested First-Past-The-Post system – which enshrines and perpetuates the principle of ‘one person, one vote’ – be morally justified, unless it is to deliver a more proportionate system of electing a government?
FPTP versus PR would have been a referendum worth having: AV is a fudge which satisfies no-one. As Nick Clegg himself said, it's a 'grubby little compromise'.
We are talking here about the future of our democracy, and insofar as it is a fragile model of government, it would be theoretically foolish, politically fatal and theologically unsound to embrace any processes or procedures which might create greater inequalities or exacerbate alienation. By giving supporters of minority parties more than one vote, AV creates inequality. By providing politicians with an eternal excuse for not fulfilling their manifesto promises, AV alienates the people. Democracy requires the commitment and participation of all citizens if it is to work properly. This may be an ideal, but it is an ideal worth striving for. While FPTP is by no means without its faults and is certainly failing to deliver on participation, AV would make it worse as it would lead to almost-perpetual coalition in which the political class would decide among themselves what is best for us. How can politics be ‘progressive’ when it diminishes the likelihood of fulfilled promises? Is that not more likely to result in dashed hopes, increased cynicism, and an exasperated population declaring a plague on all their houses?
There is a theology here. But it has nothing to do with atoning for the Church’s opposition to the suffragettes. The Bible does not advocate any system of voting, principally because it does not talk about democracy. But it does talk about principles. Democracy depends ultimately upon the development of a spirituality in which human freedom, genuine community and a willingness to share under-gird political programmes and action. This is what David Cameron ultimately means when he talks of the ‘Big Society’. A universal franchise in which every person freely casts one vote is consistent with such a spirituality: it strengthens community because the minority are peaceably content to be governed by the majority. An electoral system which purports to give greater power to the people by permitting the preferences of minorities to be counted over and over again, but which actually results in greater power for politicians as they are absolved of the moral imperative to honour their promises, can only serve to diminish freedom and weaken community. And a system which prefers ‘broad church’ candidates with ‘moderate’ policies over candidates with conviction and reforming zeal can only exacerbate banality in Parliament and mediocrity in Government.
The parliamentary process is an agent of moral unity. His Grace holds to the Augustinian view that the state is a necessary evil: it exists to mitigate the effects of sin; the role of government is to restrain evil. It is a great blessing that we in the UK may choose those who represent us and who form a government. That process acts as a restraint, insofar as they are accountable and we may dismiss them. With FPTP, public opinion matters because promises unfulfilled are judged and sometimes harshly. With AV, public opinion matters far less because back-room deals and horse-trading supplant the manifesto pledge. When public opinion ceases to matter, democracy is not only diminished; it is denied.