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Blame the Media if AV Fails

May 2, 2011
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This evening I decided to look into how the polls were looking in the run up to Thursday’s referendum on whether or not the UK should move from a first past the post electoral system to a system based upon Alternative Vote.  What I found was something of a revelation.  Before I explain what it is that has vexed me, let me quote from two recent pieces of AV-related commentary.

The first is from John Kampfner’s Comment is Free piece on the Guardian website:

Labour tribalists think they have never had it so good. By Friday, according to their reckoning, hundreds of council seats will have returned to the fold, the AV referendum will have been lost and their public enemy number one, Nick Clegg, will have been humiliated. A year after Gordon Brown was driven from Downing Street in that most treacherous of coalition agreements, revenge will be sweet.

I am not sure I subscribe to these fantasies, but for the moment I will suspend my scepticism.

The shorthand predictions are that Ed Miliband will take 600 to 1,000 council seats back into Labour control; David Cameron will lose a similar number, but Tory disappointment will be offset by crowing at preserving first past the post. Clegg will stagger, battered and bruised; the Liberal Democrats will be set back nearly 20 years in local government. Speculation about a leadership challenge will begin in earnest. Chris Huhne will be said to be waiting in the wings; Tim Farron is already being talked up.

Now consider this extract from Nick Robinson’s recent column over on the BBC News website:

David’s new friend John Reid – the basis of a new Blairite alliance perhaps – suggested that any change in the voting system should be in the public interest and not the “narrow self interest” of “losing parties” which hope “to turn losers into winners” as if by magic. Who could Dr Reid have had in mind? He didn’t say. He didn’t need to.

Over at the Yes event the name Clegg could not be avoided so easily. Ed Miliband insisted that this was not and should not be a referendum on Nick Clegg – the man he refuses to share a platform with. Vince Cable – Clegg’s AV understudy today – insisted that his leader was not a liability in this campaign.

What similarities are there between these two pieces? Give up?  I’m not surprised… The answer is that, despite supposedly being about AV, focus solely both pieces focus solely upon the personalities involved in the Yes and No campaigns.

Whether in print, media or TV, the British media have done their best to present the AV referendum not as an opportunity for the British public to change the nature of their democracy but as an internecine squabble amongst Britain’s political classes: ‘Oooh… how will Nick Clegg react to David Cameron campaigning against AV?’, ‘Oooh… does the number of big Labour beasts in the No camp suggest that Miliband is failing to win the loyalty of the Blairites?’, ‘Oooh… will Nick Clegg be forced to distance himself from Chris Huhne and if he does so will he alienate the left wing of his party?’ and so on and so forth…

The reality is that AV is not about personalities. In fact, politics as a whole is not about personalities but about issues. It is about looking at the nature of the world and making tough decisions based upon reasonable speculation and sound moral judgement, it is not about who is next going to be evicted from the Big Brother house. By choosing to focus upon names and faces rather than the substance of the disagreements between them, the British media have reduced all political discussion to a series of sordid and pointless popularity contests.

The British media’s obsession with personalities serves only to make politics seem irrelevant to the lives of most British people. Who cares about Nick Clegg’s relationship with Chris Huhne? Who cares about whether or not David Cameron and Nick Clegg actually get on? These are valid questions but they are valid only because their answers will impact upon government policy. By failing to spell out the true implications and stakes of political disagreement, the British media are making it impossible for the people to make informed decisions in the voting booth.

If the upcoming referendum fails to support a change to AV it will not be because the British people have made an informed decision about the constitutional implications of such a change, it will be because they have decided that they either like or dislike David Cameron, Nick Clegg or Ed Miliband. They will make their decision on a purely personal basis because the British media has fed them a diet comprising nothing but personality politics.

The British media are failing in their duty to keep the British public informed on the important issues of the day.

Book cover

In their excellent book Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – And Turned its Back on the Middle Class (2010) Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson talk about the tendency of the American media to concentrate solely upon the spectacle of electoral politics:

At the center of this blinkered vision are the huge shows we call elections, circuses that bring together two broad groups under a red-white-and-blue tent. In the audience sits a fairly inchoate mass of voters. In the ring are the politicians, individual showmen who seek their favour. They succeed or fail in wooing a fickle electorate partly based on events – Vietnam, riots, an assassination, an economic downturn – and partly on their skill in managing the related challenges. This view of politics is appealing and easily packaged. It’s also reassuring: If politicians are doing something, it must be because voters want them to. There’s just one problem: It misses the essence of American politics. – Pp. 101

The true essence of politics, according to Hacker and Pierson lies not in the names and faces of individual politicians or even the notional ideological preferences of the parties they represent, but in the shifting balance of power between different political interest groups. How do we track to rise and fall of different interest groups? By analysing political policy and asking who benefits from the various possibilities on offer. However, rather than providing us with this sort of detailed political analysis, the media prefer the simplicity of human scale and the sensation of personal politics: Who’s in? Who’s out? Who’s pink? Who’s a queen?

The solution? Simple… turn off the news. As the novelist Rolf Dobelli put it in a recent TED talk (PDF):

News is to the mind what sugar is to the body.

He suggests that, rather than allowing the media to drown us in bullshit, we do the legwork ourselves:

If you want to keep the illusion of “not missing anything important”, I suggest you glance through the summary page of the Economist once a week. Don’t spend more than five minutes on it.

Read magazines and books which explain the world – Science, Nature, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly. Go for magazines that connect the dots and don’t shy away from presenting the complexities of life – or from purely entertaining you. The world is complicated, and we can do nothing about it. So, you must read longish and deep articles and books that represent its complexity. Try reading a book a week. Better two or three. History is good. Biology. Psychology. That way you’ll learn to understand the underlying mechanisms of the world. Go deep instead of broad. Enjoy material that truly interests you. Have fun reading.

If you want to find out about AV, do the research yourself and think about what it means for you and the things you care about. Are you worried about the downsides to AV? If so, do you really think that those downsides are so costly that they merit keeping a system as ruinously unfair as First Past the Post? If you genuinely think so then vote your mind and vote your heart but whatever you do, don’t vote on the basis of what passes for news in this country as it really is nothing but hot air.

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