Rightwingers say they hate big government. As their current campaigns show, it’s not true.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 1st March 2011.
Elsewhere in the world, people are mobilising to demand more power. Here in the UK, inventive campaigns are mobilising to demand less. Those who would have us vote no in the UK’s two referendums this spring – one on changing the system for Westminster elections, one on transferring powers to the Welsh Assembly – have so far failed to muster a single persuasive argument. Instead they’ve relied on underhand tactics.
The No to AV campaign has exploited what appears to be a vacuum in the rules governing political campaigning. Its advertisements make the blatantly misleading claim that electing MPs through the alternative voting system would cost £250m(1). This breaks down as follows: £82m for the referendum, £130m for electronic voting machines, £35m for voter education and £3m to make the figure look better(2).
They take us for idiots. The £82m will be spent whatever the outcome of the referendum: a no vote doesn’t make the money re-appear. There are currently no plans to introduce electronic voting machines(3) and no need: very few are used in AV elections in Australia(4). The voter education figures are based on the cost of informing people about a different electoral system (the single transferable vote), a bigger and more complex change than the one proposed(5).
As Sunny Hundal reports, it looks as if the no campaign will get away with this crude deception(6). Neither the Advertising Standards Authority nor the Electoral Commission will take responsibility for ensuring that campaign adverts are true. People will vote in May on the basis of false information.
The True Wales campaign, which is trying to prevent members of the Welsh assembly from legislating without permission from Westminster, has pulled off a cannier trick. It has refused to register with the Electoral Commission as the lead campaign against the proposal – which will be put before the people of Wales on Thursday. This means that it isn’t eligible for free delivery of its leaflets or for airtime on the TV and radio. It also means that the yes campaign doesn’t get this exposure either: the rules say that everyone dances or no one dances(7,8).
The result is that, with two days to go, hardly anyone here seems to be aware that a referendum is happening, or to understand what it’s about and why it’s important. The polls suggest that the no campaign hasn’t a hope of winning(9): the best it can do is to declare the vote unrepresentative because very few people turn out. It has engineered a situation which makes this more likely.
So far so unsurprising. But the question which occurs to me is this: isn’t the right supposed to be against big government?
Not all those who urge a no vote belong to the right, but this is where most of the opposition to both reforms is coming from. The No to AV campaign has yet to reveal who its financial backers are(10). But we know that the campaign director is the founder of the TaxPayers’ Alliance(11), and that its cause is supported by the prime minister and most Conservative MPs. Among the few supporters of the no vote in Wales are prominent members of UKIP(12), the leadership of the BNP(13) and a group called Christian Doctrine(14), which maintains that Jews have been persecuted because they are opposed to God’s will(15) and that “homosexuality is an abomination, deserving only of death”(16). Most of these groups rail against the state and claim that they want us to be free from its intrusions. Yet in both cases they are supporting big government against the people.
The first-past-the-post system places inordinate power in the hands of the executive. It minimises MPs’ accountability to the electorate and maximises their accountability to party machines and spin doctors. It stifles smaller parties, delivers unrepresentative governments and facilitates monarchical politics of the kind Tony Blair perfected, in which the electorate, parliament and even the cabinet were excluded from decisions taken by the king and his courtiers.
It ensures that the great majority of votes are wasted, and that the only electors who count are swing voters in marginal constituencies, who can often be bought with a nifty tax bribe. The Institute for Public Policy Research calculates that in the last general election 460,000 decisive votes were cast(17). Cameron wreaks his havoc as a result of decisions made by 1.6% of the electorate. While the alternative vote is a feeble reform, it goes a small way towards redressing the balance of power between government and people.
In Wales the choice is starker. In principle the National Assembly has powers over 20 different aspects of public life, but it remains in the ridiculous position of having to beg the Palace of Westminster for permission to legislate. English, Scottish and Irish MPs, lords and Whitehall civil servants – over none of whom the people of Wales have power – can delay and frustrate the decisions of their elected representatives.
Meddling by Westminster and Whitehall has held back laws – in some cases for three years – that would have given thousands of people in Wales affordable homes, organ transplants and access to mental healthcare. The control London exercises over such decisions is both illegitimate and unique: no other legislature has to ask permission from another government to discharge its powers. It creates the impression that Wales still requires the tutelage of a colonial master.
This view was made explicit by a spokesman for the no campaign, a businessman called Paul Matthews. He maintained that not enough people in Wales “have the abilities” required to legislate(18).* Rational decision-making, by implication, resides exclusively in the hallowed precincts of Westminster – as has been abundantly demonstrated in recent years.
The message in both cases seems to be “trust central government – what could possibly go wrong?”. This, coming from people who rage against the state, looks odd. But the authoritarian right has confused us with its choice of language. Many of those who claim to oppose big government relish centralised power. The less accountable it is, the better they like it.
What they hate is state spending, for the obvious reason that this is the means by which money is distributed from the rich to the poor. They want governments which both control the lower orders and ensure that they receive as little money as possible from richer taxpayers. There is no inconsistency in these positions – but there are few votes to be gained from spelling them out. The two referenda have forced these phoney radicals to show their hands. That’s a result for democracy, even before the votes have been cast.
*UPDATE: As I was finishing this column, it seems that Paul Matthews was posting the following on Facebook:
“ABSTAIN ON THURSDAY! Let’s deprive this “referendum” of any legitimacy – by securing an abysmal turnout – then start the campaign to ABOLISH THE ASSEMBLY on Friday!”
Up till then, the No campaign had been more guarded about both its strategy and its agenda.
1. No to AV, 15th February 2011. AV is going to cost you £250m.
2. No to AV, 2011. 250 million reasons to say no to AV. http://votemay5th.notoav.org/documents/the-cost-of-AV.pdf
4. No to AV, 28th February 2011. Australia does use vote counting machines.
5. No to AV, 2011. 250 million reasons to say no to AV. http://votemay5th.notoav.org/documents/the-cost-of-AV.pdf
9. You can see the poll results so far here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welsh_devolution_referendum,_2011#Opinion_polls_and_comments
12. Eg http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-12276141
13. BNP, 23rd February 2011. British National Party in Wales Calls for No Vote in Welsh Assembly Referendum.
14. JB Waddell, 20th January 2011. The True Wales ‘No’ Campaign pokes one in the eye of the Welsh political elite. Christian Doctrine.
15. KB Napier, posted 3rd September 2010. The Jews Today:- A brief examination of Romans 9, 10 and 11
16. KB Napier, posted 3rd November 2010. The truth is plain – homosexuality is an abomination. http://christiandoctrine.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=697:the-truth-is-plain-homosexuality-is-an-abomination&catid=106:society-and-culture&Itemid=478
17. Guy Lodge and Glenn Gottfried, January 2011. Worst of Both Worlds: Why First Past the Post no longer works. IPPR. http://www.ippr.org.uk/members/download.asp?f=%2Fecomm%2Ffiles%2FWorst+of+Both+Worlds+Jan2011+revised.pdf