Debating the Alernative Vote System naturally brings up wider questions about democracy. Rather than get into technical apsects of AV versus other systems, it's worth addressing some elephants in the room. Even a quick look at the surrounding issues gives evidence that democracy is in a much worse state than mainsteam discourse would have us believe — even though most people have a starightforward understanding that they do not control the political decisions that affect them. Before giving an opinion on AV, then, it is helpful to take a critical look at democracy in the UK, and think about alternative institutions that could correct the problems.
Knowledge: problematic democracy
It's clear that there are problems that AV, or even full proportional representation, would not solve with our electoral system. A cursory look at the facts casts serious doubt on whether the voter really controls government policy in the UK. The Guardian reports that "50% of Tory funds come from [the] City" (The Guardian, Wednesday 09/02/2011, p.1). And it's not subscriptions that make up all of the remaining money, but other donations from businesses too. A major Tory-friendly website expressed (here) one editor's opinion that "A £50,000 cap on donations would kill the Conservative Party", adding that "the stark fact is that if such a curb on donations were in force, the Conservative Party would not have enough cash to function as an entity". The article does not go on to speculate on what it means for democracy, if it is true that wealthy donors can make or break the biggest political parties by choosing the most profitable place to invest donations. And this was only a comment on the largest and most obvious, but probably not the most significant, form of corporate help to political parties.
The UK has been under the rule of representative democracy, coupled with an economy dominated by institutions of rabid profit seeking and power, for many years. Representative democracy serves to create an appearance of people power. In fact, the weight of evidence shows that the long-term dominance of major political parties, and their most important policies, are determined primarily by major donors and powerful supporters, and only secondarily by voters. Thus, representative democracy serves to maintain elite power while allowing minor but much publicised influence from ordinary people on selected issues. Where large investors agree on a policy, this policy is likely to be taken up by all major parties and not even presented to the electorate as a choice. Evidence for this is easy to find and not particularly controversial — until the obvious conclusions are drawn, at which point the corporate-defined "mainstream" media debate becomes silent.
We can see evidence for this conclusion in many places. Ask anyone on the street and many will reply that politicians are in it for themselves and care more about maintaining their own positions than helping ordinary people. Most obviously there is the fact that major parties do support many policies against the interests and wishes of the population. Having noted that, it is not a counterargument to see that often public opinion aligns with elite interest, especially after informational bombardment from corporate news sources (as when the US population supported war with Iraq, 49% of them falsely believing that Saddam had direct involvement with 9-11). There is also uncontroversial evidence for the revolving door between business and government, where government officials are very often former players in the businesses that fund parties, and vice versa.
We can also find some interesting hints in the past process of the expansion of the electorate. At some point only landowners and other wealthy individuals were allowed the vote — a system of naked elite power. As the Chartists, Suffragettes and others called for voting reform, elites gave way gradually, and without calling all their resources into resistance, to a fairer system. This suggests that elites did not have anything critical to loose in terms of control of government. This suggestion is strongly supported by the fact that, when voting patterns turned to populism in the US, seriously threatening elite interests, expansion of the electorate was in many states actually reversed, and only liberalised again once the populist threat to elite power declined (see Golden Rule by Thomas Ferguson, p.74, table 1.1). Mass organisation against elite interests was not only difficult to achieve in itself for large numbers of poor workers and farmers, but was also suppressed with extreme levels of violence at this time (see People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn).
But the most rigourous evidence comes from the study of historical shifts in policies and the search for explanations. Sometimes parties dissolve and reform, or drastically change policies, in so called "realignments" — why is this? One theory looks for the causes of realignments in shifts of voter blocks and voter opinions and interests. Unfortunately this process leads to very little success. In a sweeping study of American voting patterns, scholars (who were not unsympathetic to the "voters rule" view themselves) declared that "electoral change during the periods usually identified as realignments was not in every case either as sharp or pervasive… as the literature suggests… electoral patterns do not, by themselves, clearly and unequivocally point to the occurrence of partisan realignment" (Clubb, Flanigan and Zingale, quoted in Golden Rule). Political scientist Thomas Ferguson says "To this evidence of massive public policy change without correspondingly sweeping electoral realignment, and other difficulties, adherents of the critical realignment ["voters rule"] theory respond variously. The common denominator in virtually all their replies, however, is a determination to shore up the theory by making it more complicated… but it is doubtful that such moves will do more than postpone the inevitable… both quantitative and case studies [indicate that] the relationship between public policy change and party platforms, electoral margins, and voting behaviour is weak and unstable". On the other hand, studying the interests of major investors gives, in comparison, a very powerful connection to policy changes without adding heaps of extra detail to the point where the result may have been a coincidence, as is done in the other theory. The results are backed up by documentary evidence showing that major donors influenced policy. Anyone can see the convincing evidence for themselves in Ferguson's book Golden Rule and the many references therein.
The reasons for this are not hard to see. Before a party can think about winning votes to approach the median voter, it has to win enough funding to be able to "function as an entity": that is, employ staff, form policy, fund studies, and fund electoral campaigns, amongst other things. Funders seek to maximise their own advantage by giving money (in particular corporations are duty-bound to give money only if it eventually helps their bottom line). If all major parties end up agreeing with all the major policies suggested by elite interests, as is likely, the median voter has nowhere to go. Not just by direct funding, but by a whole host of indirect means, corporations and powerful individuals can fund parties and use their organisational clout to give parties various advantages and attract funding from others. In wider society, corporate think-tanks, media they own, and "astroturf" or "fake grass-roots" organisations can all be used to garner support.
If all else fails and other actors manage to fund their own parties, business can squeeze the victor by other means. In France, "failure of the bold plans of the Mitterrand government in 1981-1982 were caused, above all, by an open economy that had to bow to the discipline of capitalist world markets rather than follow a program that had been democratically voted for by the French people" (Socialism, Michael Harrington, quoted in Economic Justice and Democracy, Robin Hahnel, ch. 5). In effect, those who could profit by the failure of the French government moved investment from France, causing just such a failure. Whether the money was better invested elsewhere as a result of new policies, or was moved specifically on the expectation of damage to the government, there was profit to be had. Magnus Ryner's analysis of the downfall of Swedish Social democracy follows similar lines (see his article "Neoliberal Globalisation and the Crisis of Swedish Social Democracy", also referenced in Economic Justice and Democracy ).
Vision: participatory economics and polity
One of the key problems here is economic power that is affecting political power. As Michael Albert comments in his book Realising Hope, "capitalist economics produces gigantic centres of concentrated power in the form of its corporations and their ruling elements. It also produces atomised, weakened, de-centred and disconnected workers and consumers. Further, it provides means to translate corporate economic might into political influence by corporations controlling communication, information and the finances of electioneering, as well as coercing political officials."
How can we avoid this influence of powerful economic actors on politics? The only real solution is to avoid the existence of a tiny elite of economically powerful people and organisations altogther. We need economic institutions that disperse power, rewarding and empowering sociable and worthy behaviour rather than giving the best returns to those ready to maximise profit at any cost to people and planet. This can be achieved in participatory economics (see here and here, as well as on the PPS-UK site). In this system, the primary organisations are councils of workers and consumers themselves, who interact in a decentralised planning procedure that can be shown to produce efficient outcomes (under much less stringent assumptions than those necessary for market "efficiency", for example). This avoids a situation in which most economic power is held either by wealthy owners (as it is today), top-level bureaucrats (as it was e.g. in the Soviet Union), or a techical/managerial elite. This last is achieved by balancing tasks that bestow economic power with other tasks in everyone's workload.
This deals with the impact of economics on politics. With that solved, however, do we really want a "democracy" in which passive voters are presented with a small number of options by fully engaged groups of professional politicians? Isn't this form just a reflection of political domination of the many by the few? If we want everyone to have a say over the decisions that affect them, we need some way for everyone to be able to know about and understand the issues, to be able to discuss them to hear the points of view of others and iron out differences, and to participate in decision making. Representative democracy does not provide this. But neither would it be practical to have all members of society discuss all issues in detail, either in "one big meeting" or in constant referenda on all details.
To cope with that, we turn again to people's councils, in a system called participatory polity (see here and on the PPS-UK site). Political councils could contain all members of society, organised by locality, starting with small groups of around 20 or 30. Here, issues affecting only these small groups could be worked out with no interference from others. But what if an issue affected, say, people in adjoining streets? Well, there would be a higher council, again of about 30 members, each one of which was sent as a recallable delegate from the grassroots councils (containing about 900 members altogether). There the delegates would spend their time debating these wider issues, according to the wishes of the lower councils (who would have access to all records) without requiring everyone to decide everything. Councils could commission reports and fact-finding committees to take care of technical issues. Contentious issues could sometimes be sent down to a vote at the lowest level, and the lower level councils could also petition for votes on some issues. Above the second level council would be a third level organised in the same way. In only 4 or 5 layers a very large country can be completely covered, making the scheme practical. This has the advantage that all members of society have space to discuss issues that affect them, with access to and power over all debates, but not in such a way that every fine detail is the responsibility of everyone. The important idea is that power remains in the hands of the grassroots councils, with higher councils beholden to them, made up of their delegates, and acting only as their agents. This contrasts with a situation in which a "top council" like parliament can work against the people that it is supposed to represent with few repercussions. After all, the lower council members have their economic power as free workers and consumers to back them up; there is no elite group waiting to usurp control of top councils. As one advocate of council democracy said, "for the working class in the present time the real issue is between council organisation, the true democracy of labour, and the apparent, deceitful middle-class democracy of formal rights" (Worker's Councils, Anton Pannekok). Albert comments on participatory economics and participatory polity that "each requires and produces what the other requires and needs" (Realising Hope).
As well as economic relations, kinship and community relations also have non-trivial impact on the political. An upbringing built around an authoritarian patriarchal household, or one in which certain subjects are "off limits", is less likely to awaken the kind of critical consciousness required for political participation. More concretely, if, due to bad kinship norms and institutions, women take the greater share of the most menial, repetitive, boring tasks related to childcare, they will be far less able to participate in politics, no matter what gains have been made in changing the political and economic institutions themselves. We live in a world where the confidence of young women to act and think independently is systematically attacked by patriarchal media and culture, which creates constant pressure to conform to disempowering, passive, "good wife" role-models. Statistics on mental and physical health of young women, in particular eating disorders directly brought on by this pressure, are truly shocking. Women remain the primary victims of physical assault and coercion, another factor limiting their political involvement. Likewise minority communities are marginalised and excluded from the prevailing discourse in society. These issues cannot be ignored or left to be sorted out after political and economic issues — we are talking about important issues that drastically affect half of humanity. A revolution in kinship and community spheres to feminist, egalitarian and "intercommunalist" institutions and norms would help and be helped by the political transformation detailed above (see Realising Hope, edited by Chris Spannos).
This represents a full blooded answer to the question "what would real democracy and freedom look like?" Vision for a better politics helps us to frame and direct our strategy in the here and now.
Strategy: from here to there
So, having gone through this background, what should we do about the AV campaign? Strategy can be compared to chess. Although the aim of the game is the checkmate the King, not every move checkmates the King. Not every move is a direct step to one that checkmates the King. Some may even appear to be backward steps or sacrifices.
In our campaign, the "aim of the game" is radical social change to a system like that outlined above. One move, for example, might be voting for AV. Clearly, merely saying that AV is a half-measure is not a complete argument to vote against it. That is like saying that moving a pawn in chess is a half measure, and arguing on this basis alone that we should not move a particular pawn in a particular game. If the move helps our future chances of winning further gains, we should do it. If the move uses resources that would be better spent elsewhere, okay, that is a valid argument against it. Certainly putting all our energies into AV would be a mistake. But, if nothing else, talking about AV gives us the opportunity to bring issues like those outlined above into the limelight, which is surely a good thing. And even if we distrust all elected representatives, we can still recognise that some further our cause (or decline to fight it) more than others. If AV brings them in rather than the alternative, so much the better, surely. And if AV opens up the appetite for further gains, all to the good. Furthermore, reform campaigns can mobilise more reform-oriented activists, and perhaps move some reformist campaigners into deeper criticism of the staus quo. AV might not be the biggest hot-button issue in this regard, but if it is not a negative step, it seems counterproductive to spend time directly campaigning against it, as some groups are doing.
In circumstances like these, one has to question motives. Is the aim to win? Or is the aim to make ourselves feel like we, personally, are living up to some principles in a simplistic sense? For those that oppose the present money system, for example, it might feel bad to work with money for campaigns — but if not doing this damages our chances of winning real changes for all, all we have done is to keep our own hands clean at the expense of others. Likewise, writing "guillotine the Royals" (even though you have no intention of doing so!) on your placard might make you and your friends laugh. But does it attract new people to the movement, and help present a positive image to passers-by? Does it help to educate those that see the placard and draw them to your real ideas? In short, how does it help in the process of winning the changes that you seek? In virtually every action that an activist can take, if the end vision is not kept firmly in mind as the driving motivation behind action, it's easy to end up ineffectively massaging our own egos, without stopping to think about what the most effective trajectory for change might be. As Malcolm X said, "If you don't stand for something you will fall for anything."
Thinking about AV definitely falls into this category. Maybe it is not the big issue that can mobilise many thousands right now. But there is no reason actively to oppose a move that makes a marginal positive difference. If those fighting cuts can at least nod at those fighting for electoral reform, and better yet, if economic and political activists from many campaigns can stand together and swap insights with feminists, anti-racism activists, anti-war protestors and green campaigners, our movement will only become stronger (for more on these points, see Trajectory for Change by Micheal Albert). Diverse priorities are a fact of life, and a strength, not a weakness, of our movement of movements.