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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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.