In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the AV referendum on May 4th will very much play second fiddle to the elections to Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont. Ironically though, it is precisely in these three areas that the outcome of the referendum could be determined. People going to vote in the devolved assembly elections will also find themselves presented with the AV referendum ballot paper. Therefore, although, the vast majority of people are indifferent to it, the likely higher voting turnout for other reasons in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could possibly swing the outcome of the AV referendum to a ‘Yes’ vote, if the turnout in England is much smaller.
It is interesting to compare the political line-up over AV with the last major constitutional referenda. These were held in 1997 to decide whether devolved assemblies should be introduced to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Once again, the principal division was between the conservative unionist opponents (Tories, UKIP, BNP and DUP) and the liberal unionist supporters (Labour and Lib-Dems), drawing enthusiastically upon constitutional nationalist support in Scotland (SNP), Wales (Plaid Cymru) and Northern Ireland (SDLP and Sinn Fein, which following the Good Friday Agreement had become a constitutional nationalist party too), as well as former official and dissident (i.e. Trotskyist) communist support, e.g. CPB, SWP, CWI.
In 1997 the liberal wing of the British ruling class, represented politically by Tony Blair and New Labour, was in the ascendancy. They dictated the pace and outcome of the three referenda, despite strong conservative unionist challenges in Wales and Northern Ireland. However, in the latter the liberal unionist pull (which was successfully linked to the widespread demand for ‘peace’) was even able to pull the traditionally very conservative unionist Ulster Unionist Party in behind it.
Today, the conservative unionists are in the ascendancy (see appendix for political line-up over the AV referendum). However, they face a problem overcoming a justified voter disinterest, since neither side offers any democratic advance. AV can lead to even less proportional representation than FPTP. AV is not PR, merely a modified form of the FPTP, which can be used to buttress the status quo in situations where two-party politics are no longer dominant. Those continued supporters of the status quo believe that the distortion factor introduced by the Lib-Dems emerging as a third party will be eliminated by the squeeze on this party. This could lead either to the Lib-Dems’ retreat back to minor party status, or its split and the merger of the National Liberal wing into the Tories and the anti-Clegg Liberal wing into New Labour.
Unlike the 1979 referenda on devolved assemblies, which the liberal unionists initiated, the current AV referendum has come about as a reluctant Tory concession, grudgingly enacted through Westminster, to keep Clegg’s Lib-Dems on board. However, the Lib-Dems are only there to be used, abused, and if and when necessary, spat out. Cameron may entertain some thoughts of a Tory/National Liberal merger, but his longer term strategy on behalf of British corporate capital does not depend on it. (Mandelson and Miliband are probably more committed to a merger of New Labour and the anti-Clegg Liberals).
The Tories have put relatively little thought into the mechanics of getting a ‘No’ vote. The conservatives’ difficulties are compounded by the inbuilt advantage given to the ‘Yes’ camp through holding the referendum on the same day as the Scottish and Welsh elections, where ‘Yes’ support is likely to be stronger. If a ‘Yes’ vote is obtained on May 4th by means of higher turnouts in Scotland and Wales, this could well raise an indignant British chauvinist, anti-Scottish, anti-Welsh clamour. It will be used to ramp up the conservative opposition to namby-pamby liberalism. Any majority ‘Yes’ vote won on May 4th can not be guaranteed to lead to the successful implementation of AV, especially if the percentage support is well short of 50% of the total electorate. This will provide the Cameron’s Conservatives with an excuse to renege, and Clegg will most likely back down, whilst Miliband will just move on.
Therefore Cameron is not overly concerned about a ‘Yes’ victory in the referendum. The Tories have another and more central strategy to win wider support to provide cover for their continued Cuts Offensive and the ongoing imperial wars in Afghanistan and Libya. This centres around Cameron’s two year ‘Royalist Britfest’ – two royal weddings, a golden jubilee and a declaration of UK (Trafalgar) Day on October 21st to replace May Day (mightily helped by Labour and trade union officials’ attempts to depoliticise May Day and offer it as a family day instead – soon we’ll all be dancing round maypoles!) Labour criticisms over the timing of cuts notwithstanding (and there is no official Labour criticism of the latest war in Libya), both Labour and the Lib-Dems have signed up for the ‘Royalist Britfest’, so any wider ‘opposition’ emanating from them is going to be very half-hearted.
However, to counter the liberal constitutional supporters’ listless AV campaign in the run-up to the May 4th referendum, the conservative wing of the ruling class has easily won back support from the UUP (which gave its reluctant support to the 1997 liberal unionist Good Friday Agreement), and it has also been able to split the Labour Party (as it did in the 1979 Scottish and Welsh referenda, and to a certain extent, albeit unsuccessfully, in the recent Welsh Assembly referendum). After the CPB’s longstanding populist alliance with the anti-Euro Right, and the CWI’s capitulation to British chauvinism in the No2EU campaign, it is perhaps not surprising to see them in the ‘No’ camp too. Apparently the SWP (not mentioned in the Wikipedia list) recommend a ‘No’ vote too. This is entirely consistent with their frontist Right to Work campaign’s wooing of traditionalist Labour councillors opposed to the cuts in words but not deeds.
There are two mavericks in the new line-up. UKIP appear to have abandoned their traditional ultra-conservative defence of the British constitution for what they hope will be short term electoral gains through by supporting a ‘Yes’ vote (good to see that Left opportunism is matched on the Right too!) Respect supports abstention. With George Galloway in complete control, Respect might have committed itself to the ‘No’ camp favoured by the traditional Labour and former official Communists. Possibly Galloway considers AV insignificant.
In 1997 the two political alternatives on offer both arose from divisions amongst the ruling class over the best way to maintain their political control – constitutional conservatism with Westminster direct rule in Britain, plus a devolved sectarian Stormont or constitutional liberalism with ‘devolution-all-round’ for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (also in the form of a devolved sectarian Stormont). Comrades who went on to join the RCN pointed out that the British ruling class had thrown its weight behind the Peace (in reality the pacification) Process and ‘devolution-all-round’ as the best means of creating the political conditions necessary to maximize corporate profitability throughout these islands. The British ruling class also gained the support of the Irish, key EU and US ruling classes for this stance.
However, we didn’t recommend a vote ‘No’ in opposition to this, since the conservative unionists represented some pretty ugly forces, which could still exercise their malign influence, whatever the majority decision in any referenda. Any ‘No’ vote would merely strengthen them. The subsequent blocking tactics of the DUP at Stormont, supplemented by the continued murderous activities of the Loyalists, were just two indicators of this continuing influence. Conservative unionists are more prepared to ignore liberal democratic niceties on a day-to-day basis and to seek support from extra-constitutional reactionary forces. Liberal unionists like to keep such forces at arms-length distance, and tend only to resort to them in times of great crisis.
Today’s AV referendum represents nothing more than an intra-ruling class tiff , to provide political cover for Nick Clegg and his Orange Book Lib-Dem careerists in the Con-Dem Coalition. Support for the conservative constitutional option (‘No’ to AV) is probably in the majority in England and Northern Ireland, whilst support for the liberal constitutionalist option (‘Yes’ to AV), which includes its constitutional nationalist supporters, is probably in the majority in Scotland and maybe Wales. Socialists should not be giving their support to either side.
Last November the Scottish Socialist Party had a debate and decided, at its National Council in Perth, that AV did not represent any advance towards PR, which we strongly support. Therefore we opposed AV although making no recommendation to vote ‘No’ in the ballot, which amounts to abstention in practice. In reality the subsequent lack of interest in the party over the issue merely reflects the huge yawn factor amongst the wider electorate. This can’t be written off as jaded apoliticism. Much of this feeling represents an accurate class response to the issues at stake over AV.
Those workers, who think that giving Clegg a kick in the teeth by voting ‘No’, are mainly to be found amongst people who have illusions in traditional Labour. Those workers who want to give Cameron a kick in the teeth by voting ‘Yes’ have illusions in New Labour (whatever spurious qualifications we get from some Leftist apologists like the CPGB). You can not build an effective anti-cuts or anti-war movement around these people.
Socialist republicans in Scotland, Wales and ‘the Six Counties’ are more aware of the conservative unionists’ current wider project – the two year ‘Royal Britfest’. Rehabilitating the union jack in Scotland provides the Conservatives and Loyalists with much needed succour and is not something we would want to see. The recent death threats to prominent Catholics (in reality targeted for their perceived Irish connections) and Rangers football supporters’ bigotry (witnessed and condemned by UEFA) shows that no help, even if unintentional, should be given to conservative and reactionary unionism. Conservative unionism provides reaction with legitimacy, just as laws discriminating against migrants encourages the neo-fascist forces of the BNP, EDL, SDL, WDL, UVF and UFF. Thus, instead of getting worked up about AV, the SSP has concentrated instead on the Holyrood elections and republican campaigning against the royal wedding to supplement its anti-cuts and anti-war work.
Genuine socialists in Scotland will not be happy in joining with the conservative unionism of the Tories, BNP and John Reid by voting ‘No’ in the AV referendum. The key strategy in getting a fight against the public sector cuts (initiated by New Labour, stepped up by the Con-Dems, and administered by SNP, Labour/Plaid Cymru, DUP/Sinn Fein devolved assemblies, and local councils led by all these parties) should not centre around whether we are better off with or without a supposedly damaged Con-Dem Coalition. The ruling class has plenty of other parties lining up to deliver the cuts, especially New Labour , and the constitutional nationalist parties too.
When those who went on to become members of the RCN recommended abstention in the 1997 Scottish referendum ballot we had stickers to apply to the ballot papers saying ‘For a Scottish Republic’. Ideally, if we had had enough time, socialists throughout the UK should have prepared stickers to apply to the AV referendum ballot papers saying, ‘No to FPTP, No to AV, Yes to PR’.
Developing an independent working class opposition – independent of both wings (conservative and liberal) of the ruling class and particularly of those trade union officials tied into partnership with the bosses and the state – is the key issue. We began this process in the Anti-Poll Tax campaign, which defeated the Tories on the basis of an independent class action and ‘internationalism from below’. Furthermore, it proved possible to begin the process of developing independent political representation for our class – first the Militant anti-poll tax councillors in Glasgow, later the SSP MSPs at Holyrood.
The ruling class managed to contain and reverse this challenge, helped in Scotland by a populist Left nationalist Tommy Sheridan, backed by the British Left sectarians of the CWI and SWP, who also sabotaged the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales. These two organisations have now switched their support to the populist Left British nationalist, George Galloway in the Holyrood election, at the same time as trying to split the anti-cuts movement behind their own front organisations.
The liberal wing of the ruling class and its political supporters can not protect us from the conservative offensive, so let’s not build any false illusions in them by recommending a ‘Yes’ vote. Furthermore, these liberals and their supporters have no strategy for developing AV into PR; just as they have no strategy for developing the current Devolution settlement into their stated objective of Federalism. They represent a complete political dead-end.
The conservatives have a much more coherent strategy, in which AV is a mere sideshow. Either a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’ vote will be used by Tories to step up their attack on our class. We have no place in either the ‘Yes’ or the ‘No’ camps. Therefore, it is to the lessons of the Anti-Poll Tax campaign that we need to look, both to counter the current ruling class Cuts Offensive and their ‘Royal Britfest’. This way we can seriously tackle the cuts , which also means opposing their latest imperial war in Libya, which Cameron wants to be his ‘Falklands War ’ just like that which fronted Thatcher’s 1980’s Cuts Offensive.
Allan Armstrong, 2 May 2011
Appendix – AV Referendum May 4th
1. Voting ‘Yes’
Parties represented in Westminster
Parties elected to the European Parliament or devolved assemblies
2. Vote ‘No’
Parties represented at Westminster
Parties elected to the European Parliament or devolved assemblies
Socialist Party of England and Wales
3. Split ‘Yes’ and ‘No’
Parties represented at Westminster
Scottish Socialist Party