So, the ‘No’ campaign against the Alternative Vote (AV) managed to win decisively in every nation and region of the UK. Even in Scotland, where on paper a ‘Yes’ vote was supported by a confident SNP, sections of the Labour Party, and the Lib-Dems and Greens, the ‘No’ vote won handsomely everywhere, apart from Edinburgh Central and Glasgow Kelvinside (with their large liberal middle class). Yet, this ‘No’ vote provided no succour to the Tory Party in Scotland, whose last city redoubt in Edinburgh Pentlands fell before the SNP steamroller in the ensuing local elections.
So, what does this ‘No’ vote represent? Of course, it had the swaggering support of the Tory bullies, who like to keep a big stick (FPTP) handy to cow the smaller boys in the playground. And many of these boys are afraid, which is not surprising when you consider the nasty things that the Tories have in store. So instead of taking on the bully himself, they have hit out at his hapless little Lib-Dem brother.
Unable to touch the main object of their hatred, what has been the effect of that swipe (the large ‘No’ vote) directed at little brother? He has decided not to go out on any more unaccompanied outings. He has quickly rushed back into the arms of big brother, but puffed out his chest saying,
Yes, but I’ll stick up for myself next time, you know! Big brother tries to hide his contempt and says,
There, there – just stay close to me, and you’ll be all right. Don’t be so stupid in the future. Meanwhile, big brother is secretly planning on how to ditch this embarrassment of a little brother as soon as possible.
So, having successfully kicked little brother in the shins, what do the other little boys in the playground think will happen next? Those that said,
Give him a good kicking, and that will make him see sense, have not surprisingly been somewhat taken aback by the results. The Labour ‘Nos’ led by that bravado-prone, but essentially cowardly Johnny Reid (always eager for a battle, but quick to fall-in behind his own favoured US bully), have found that little brother hasn’t come running to their corner of the yard.
In the south, Lib-Dem votes have haemorrhaged mainly to the Tories in the local elections. In Wales, some votes have gone to Labour, but others to the Tories. There is a slightly better showing for Labour in the North; but on Johnny’s own patch in Scotland, where Labour managed to increase its share of the General Election vote in 2010, virtually all the Lib-Dem votes passed right past Labour (and the Tories, known locally as the Dodos) and went straight over to the new kids on the block in the SNP!
In other words, kicking the Lib-Dems by voting ‘No’ may make you feel good for a very short time, but it does nothing challenge Tory big brother bully. Indeed he feels more confident now. Furthermore, it certainly did very little to win over badly shaken Lib-Dem little brother.
And what about those few who said, “How about being nice to little brother’ and forget all our own needs for the moment, and try to help him by voting ‘Yes’? Unfortunately, little brother didn’t show much fight. He constantly apologised for the lead he was providing (Clegg). He then cried when big brother turned nasty and tugged him sharply by the arm.
OK – let me end this particular analogy and turn to another more direct one. When you start off by calling for PR, and end up asking for people to vote for AV, you are in a very similar position to those who would start off by arguing for the abolition of the House of Lords, but end up saying that you should vote for the direct election of one third of the Lords instead as a way to undermine them. Far from undermining the rotten underlying principle, you merely end up reinforcing it (and AV is just FPTP in a situation where there are more than two main parties. It provides an extra shove past the post).
Furthermore, saying that,
Well we know the Lib-Dems are pathetic, but this clears the way for Labour to bring forward PR in the future, overlooks the fact that under Gordon Brown, Labour had their chance too, but fluffed it. Every constitutional innovation New Labour has introduced (Devolution-all-round, reform of the House of Lords) has been designed buttress the ruling class not to challenge it. They only support AV on paper.
The case for abstention rests on the clear understanding that building the forces needed for real change, will mean building independently of Labour (and ignoring those, for the meantime, who have advocated tailing either Labour’s ‘No’ or ‘Yes’ campaigns.) In the lousy situation we currently face, that may seem like a tall order, but it was out of the political wreckage of the 1980’s that a new political challenge arose from the independent Anti-Poll Tax Campaign.
That longer term political campaign was largely sabotaged by the sectarian Left, with the SWP and CWI playing particularly ignominious roles. Politically side lining these two organisations will be essential for any effective new challenge. There are hopeful signs that they are beginning to fall apart due to their own contradictions. I would still like to rescue some of their hard put-upon rank and file. However, that still means having no truck with party-front organisations; having a real commitment to open democratic methods of organising; and using tactics based not on opportunistic membership recruiting but on following a principled long term strategy. The one thing self-declared Marxists should be able to hold on to in lean times is a clear and sharp analysis and understanding of the situation we face today and shedding any remaining false illusions.