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Laurie Penny: put the vendetta aside and vote Yes to AV

Petty revenge politics does nothing but reduce us to the level of Westminster.

The Alternative Vote is nobody's first preference. A mitigated solution to our wheezing, elitist first-past-the-post system, the referendum on AV has nonetheless drawn the catty claws of Westminster at its very worst. As the big day approaches, the Yes and No campaigns smear, counter-smear and tear chunks out of each other like schoolgirls bickering over a strip of stickers. Voters watch them squabble like solemn parents: we're not angry, we're just very disappointed.


The spiteful infantilism of the No campaign, whose posters have featured doctored statistics and dying babies, is bad enough without having to feel frustrated with the Yes campaign for rising to it. Should we vote No to dead babies or Yes to glib celebrity platitudes? The choice is hardly inspiring.

Ironically, it is precisely this sort of situation -- the Westminster elite and vested interests carping and bitching at each other while millions of voters prepare for their lives to get a lot worse extremely quickly -- that AV is supposed to challenge.

As the two camps sling buckets of privately-funded muck at each other in the hope that some of it will stick, one comes inevitably to the very question that has inspired electoral-reform campaigners for generations: shouldn't our politics be better than this?

The No campaign in particular seems determined to reduce this deep, principled issue to one of cost-effectiveness and scaremongering. Summoning the spectre of the British National Party might be more convincing had the Conservative Prime Minister not just made a speech on immigration that played directly to the far right. If the only way local and parliamentary politicians can stop the BNP is not by challenging their racist dogma and offering working-class communities a real alternative, but by rigging the electoral system against them, there is something chillingly amiss in Westminster.

Faced with opposing campaigns that remind us how cheapened and directionless our politics have become, it is hard to muster a shrug of indifference to the upcoming referendum, let alone the shrill, orgasmic 'Yes!' that some campaigners would like us to summon.. This is a great shame, because the truth is that electoral reform matters. If it did not matter, Conservative donors would not be pouring money into the counter-campaign.

The prospect of AV frightens professional politicians from all the main parties who have become used to a culture of safe seats and easy privilegewhere the votes of the majority of their constituents can be ignored. A Yes vote would be a shot across the bows for the political elite, our one chance in a generation to toss a rock into the stagnant pool of parliamentary privilege.

The trouble is that it feels madly insufficient, like being told to eat more vegetables when you have tertiary cancer. There is too much desperation in Britain today for many voters to believe that creeping democratic change will deliver the fair and democratic settlement Britain has craved forgenerations.

Political integrity

Electoral reform is the honest heart of liberal politics. Unfortunately, liberal politics has let us all down. Immediately after the groundswell of liberal reformism that boosted the Liberal Democrats during the election, a thousand activists marched slowly to Downing Street to hand in a petition for 'Fair Votes'. Six months later, many of the same young people were being baton-charged by police horses in the same thoroughfare. As the country lurches between radicalism and resignation, I've watched a number of activists who once trusted electoral reform to bring progressive change masking up to battle the police in the streets of London. It all feels too little, too late.

The Liberal Democrats have flogged every last scrap of political integrity for this referendum, and the price was painfully high. After watching them hold the towels whilst the Tories squat with intent over education, health-care and what's left of the welfare state, many voters who otherwise support electoral reform would prefer to see the Liberal Democrats humiliated by defeat in their precious referendum. That sentiment is absolutely understandable.

Petty revenge politics, however, does nothing but reduce us to their level -- the level where honest politics are subsumed by splenetic personal vendettas and snide tactical voting. If we are ever going to get the politics we deserve then we, the voters, need to show a maturity that our politicians are currently failing to evince.

The Alternative Vote feels like a compromise, and it is. It's easy to feel torn between the longing for a more honest politics and the desire for revenge. There is time, however, to express such conflicts when we have a voting system that honours real choice. If we ever get second preferences, I'll happily vote for bile, spleen and spite -- but my first preference is for a clear and heartfelt challenge to parliamentary privilege. That's why I'm voting Yes.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era