Socialism means winning the majority

Winning a 'yes' vote in the May 5 referendum on AV should be seen as part of the battle for extreme democracy, writes Peter Manson

Last month the leftwing Labour Representation Committee issued a statement calling for a ‘no’ vote in the May 5 referendum. The electorate will be asked to agree to the proposed change in Britain’s voting system from ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) to the alternative vote (AV).

LRC vice-chair Susan Press said: “FPTP is by no means perfect, but does mean that coalitions are less common, and it also sticks to the principle of ‘one person, one vote’. However, the whole thing is at best an irrelevance, and at worst a distraction from the real struggles people are facing in the face of this government”.[1]

The claim that a discussion and decision over the method of electing parliamentary representatives is “an irrelevance” and “a distraction” is rather philistine. A voting system, rather obviously, determines who is elected and given law-making powers. Even a comparatively minor reform like a switch to AV would produce a different election result in a number of constituencies, perhaps leading to a change in the overall balance between the parties. The adoption of a coherent view in opposition to the UK constitution is not in contradiction to the fight against the all-out ‘austerity’ assault fronted by the coalition government.

The two reasons given by comrade Press are embarrassing, especially coming from an organisation that calls itself socialist. The implication that AV does not stick to “the principle of ‘one person, one vote’” is one that is also made by the Labour right. Margaret Beckett MP, president of the cross-party No to AV campaign, claims that the alternative vote is “not a fair system” because “Supporters of fringe parties can end up getting five or six votes, while people who backed the mainstream candidates only get one.”[2]

This is profoundly ignorant. Under AV everyone has a single vote, but each voter is equally entitled to express an order of preference for the allocation of that vote. The candidate with the fewer first preferences is eliminated first and all those who gave their first preference to that candidate will then have their second preference taken into account, the process being repeated until one candidate has a majority. All votes for the remaining candidates are added up in every round, so everyone has their single vote counted an equal number of times, whether or not it is transferred to a different candidate.

But it is particularly disturbing that an organisation of working class partisans (the LRC, while based on the Labour Party, also includes members who belong to a range of left groups) should give as its first reason for support for the current flawed voting system that it “does mean that coalitions are less common”. That is because FTPT often distorts the franchise by translating, say, 40% support for a given party into more than 60% representation in parliament. We should leave it to our class enemies to argue that an undemocratic procedure is preferable to a democratic one, since it is more likely to produce ‘strong government’ - even though it has not been endorsed by the majority of those who vote.

The LRC statement reveals a lack of understanding of what genuine socialism entails. Working class rule requires the support of a clear, if not overwhelming, majority of the population. Socialism is the act of the working class, carried out by the working class. It cannot be legislated into existence from above - and certainly not by a government that has less than 50% of the popular vote. As soon as a working class government attempted to introduce measures that undermined the power and privileges of the ruling class, it would be paralysed and in the end removed by any means necessary through the bourgeoisie’s control of state institutions, the means of production and, not least, its “bodies of armed men”.

Since we are for the rule of the majority, we have no interest in futile attempts to sneak in progressive measures through undemocratic means. We are for representative bodies accurately reflecting society’s contending political views - both under the current capitalist order and in the future socialist society. That is why we demand a voting system based on genuine proportional representation

The alternative vote is designed to pull votes towards the centre. The Electoral Reform Society estimates that, if the 2010 general election had been held under AV, there would have been different results in just 26 constituencies. The Tories would have had 26 fewer seats, while Labour would have won four more and the Liberal Democrats would have gained 22 (although no doubt if a new election were held today under AV the Lib Dems would come in for just as much a hammering as under FPTP).

Both FPTP and the AV systems are based on local or district representation, where one MP is supposed to represent an entire locality and all the people within it, irrespective of their class, lifestyle and general political preferences. In fact AV could be said to be a form of ‘first past the post’ - or, to use a different athletic term, ‘first to clear the bar’. It merely employs a different method (ie, moving the winning post or raising the bar) for electing a ‘representative’ who claims to speak for his or her entire electorate.

Whereas FPTP simply elects the candidate with the highest total of votes - ie, a plurality - which often amounts to between 30% and 40%, AV usually results in the election of someone who has received some kind of support from a majority of those who voted (I say ‘usually’, because supporters of losing candidates may decline to express other preferences). While under FPTP a successful candidate might actually be hated by a majority of voters, they can still be elected if opposition votes are split and they receive more than any of the other candidates.[3]

It is, however, a moot point whether it is preferable to elect someone who is in effect regarded as the least unacceptable, rather than a candidate who has the greatest degree of active support, whether or not they are reviled by more voters than those who positively approve of them. The problem is the very fact that the successful candidate is supposed to represent the entirety of their constituents, with all their disparate, often antagonistic interests and views.

In other words, while the CPGB is advocating a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum, for reasons I will explain below, we are under no illusions that AV represents a marked democratic advance. There is nothing undemocratic as such in the election - whether by FPTP or AV - of a single representative or delegate for a given constituency. For example, workers in a factory or office have a common interest relating to their workplace, and it is often appropriate that they should elect their own representative to union bodies or, in a situation of much greater class-consciousness, to soviets. But council wards or parliamentary constituencies rarely have common factors that give their inhabitants, or at least the overwhelming majority of them, a common interest based purely on where they reside.

Under full proportional representation elected candidates represent not a geographical location, but a political viewpoint. The CPGB favours the party list system, such as the one operating in South Africa, where the whole country is regarded as a single constituency for purposes of election to the national assembly. The 400 assembly members are elected from party lists according to the percentage of votes recorded for each list. And there is no minimum threshold which a party must reach. In 2009, for instance, several smaller parties won a seat by virtue of receiving more than one-400th (0.25%) of the total votes cast.

In other words, the party list system, if run without undemocratic barriers such as artificial minimum-percentage thresholds for election and the requirement for large deposits to be paid (one of the reasons why the South African far left claimed it was unable to stand in 2009, although in truth, given the political will, it should have been able to overcome this), would represent genuine PR and allow the (admittedly meagre) support for socialists and communists to be reflected in parliament. This would help us develop our organisational muscle and increase our political impact.

But PR - let alone the genuine PR represented by the party list system - will not be on offer in May’s referendum. Nevertheless, there are reasons why we should advocate a ‘yes’ vote in favour of AV, despite its dreadful limitations. First, a change of voting system will demonstrate that there is nothing sacrosanct about the current UK electoral procedure. But secondly, and more importantly, it will allow the genuine preferences for parties marginalised by the current political system to be reflected in recorded votes. Because casting a first preference for a ‘no hope’ candidate is unlikely to cost a voter’s second favourite victory, such first preferences under AV are much more likely to register a smaller party’s actual support than is the case with votes cast for it under FPTP.

That is why the CPGB, while continuing to advocate full PR without restrictions, will recommend a ‘yes’ vote on May 5 for what Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg referred to as “miserable little compromise” before last year’s general election. We do this in line with our insistence that the working class can only emancipate itself by winning the battle for extreme democracy and by winning the overwhelming majority to its programme.


  1. February 16: l-r-c.org.uk/news/story/lrc-says-no-to-av
  2. www.channel4.com/news/av-referendum-labour-mps-back-both-sides
  3. Moshé Machover’s article, ‘Proportional representation and Brown’s opportunist ploy’ (Weekly Worker April 1 2010) is recommended reading for an explanation of the quirks of the various voting systems.