The Alternative Vote Referendum: Whatever the vote, the same class wins

The whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletarian to the level of stupidity attained by the bourgeois.

Gustave Flaubert

Every now and then our rulers take a break from telling us how their democracy is the most advanced humanity can ever reach and they start to tinker with it. Like someone fiddling about with an old engine in a shiny over-painted car, it has to look good before they can sell it on to the unwitting customer. And so we’ve been invited to take part in a referendum on the Alternative Vote promised as part of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition deal. Under the proposed AV system, voters rank candidates in order of preference and anyone getting more than 50% in the first round is elected. If that doesn’t happen then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, voters’ second choices are allocated to the remaining candidates and so on until a winner emerges. It’s a tried and tested method we’re told, though so far only tried and tested in Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea and described by Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats and long time proponent of proportional representation as “a miserable little compromise.”

Unions and Tories unite

At least five trade unions have waded in behind the ‘No’ campaign, leafleting their members to support the existing first past the post system. Aslef and the GMB were among those who supported the campaign financially and signed a letter to the Financial Times saying: ‘Like over a thousand donors, we support this campaign because the Alternative Vote is over-complicated, unfair and an expensive distraction from the more important challenges facing our country’. They’ve been joined by City billionaire Peter Cruddas who gave a hefty donation along with the Conservative peer and motor trader Lord Edmiston and founder of the TaxPayers’ Alliance Matthew Elliott. The Tories so far have supported the ‘No’ campaign to the tune of £1.8 million so this should give some idea of the working class nature of it. Unite, Britain’s biggest union – with 1.5m members – is also campaigning against the alternative vote although it is not officially part of the alliance.

The ‘Yes’ side, supported by Labour leader Ed Miliband, has its own problems. It’s been accused of corruption and dishonesty as one if its main financial backers could profit commercially from its introduction. The ‘Yes’ campaign received a £1million donation from the Electoral Reform Society, coincidentally the exact amount the ERS got from its commercial subsidiary, Electoral Reform Services Ltd, which has an annual turnover of £21 millions and is the leading company in electronic vote counting. If the switch to AV went ahead, ERS were looking at a potential fortune, with new counting machines alone costing £130 millions. It isn’t certain how much the switch would cost in total, but it has been estimated up to £250 million. The referendum itself has cost £82 million with the cost of voter education ahead of it costing £9 million. (At a time when councils are feeling the pinch they’re finding themselves with a bill for printing ballot papers and heating stations, with Durham facing a bill of £967,000). Additional bills in the name of democracy sound hollow to a lot of people facing real cuts in their local services but whatever the outcome of the ballot one thing is for certain: fair representation will be as far away as ever.

AV or not AV: who cares?

At least in the recent referendum in Iceland a real issue was raised when voters were asked to support a proposal to repay £3.5 billion to Britain and the Netherlands for the collapse of the country’s banking system. Over 60% of Iceland’s voters rejected the plan much to the annoyance of Iceland’s Prime Minister who called it the ‘worst option’, as it probably is for the bourgeoisie who now face a lower credit rating as a result, but as one worker, Svanhvit Ingibergs, 33, who works at a rest home, said: "I had no part in causing those debts, and I don't want our children to risk having to pay them." It was a clear message that taxpayers (ie mostly the working class) would not pay for the losses incurred by a private bank stretching over the next thirty years. Of course Iceland is unusual in allowing its voters to vote on real issues and its ruling class is working out how to get round the problem (no doubt the legal system will become involved). Iceland's Prime Minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir, was livid that the plans had been rejected. Even in this tiny bit of choice when voters exercised their rights they were denounced for not choosing the option the bourgeoisie wanted.

The AV referendum, in contrast, won’t change anything as far as most people are concerned and the few who stand to gain by it will be very few indeed. There’s no doubt that the current system is undemocratic and inefficient, even by capitalist standards. In some parts of the world it’s clearly corrupt (just look at the way George W Bush seized power), but tinkering with the voting system will not alter the fact that this democracy is based on the exploitation of one class by another. However our rulers are voted into Westminster they will represent their own class and not ours, they will vote in whatever laws they need to squeeze as much out of us as they can so their own profits can be made as peacefully and effectively as possible. We have had years of a Labour Government which aimed and succeeded at making a few people in the city very rich at the expense of the rest of us. The wealth of Britain’s super-rich quadrupled under Labour and the fortunes of the ultra wealthy shot up to £412.85 billion compared to £98.99 billion in 1997, leaving the rich-poor divide wider than 40 years ago with child poverty figures climbing to 2.9 millions in 2008/9. And we all know life for the poorest of us under the coalition is set to get a whole lot worse thanks to the cuts. Whatever the outcome of the ballot one thing is for certain: unless class exploitation is dealt with, fair representation will be as far away as ever.

Democracy or Dictatorship

There is no doubt that democratic governments are the most efficient, stable and safest way for the bourgeoisie to rule. It’s always better to have the working class believe they are already free since it reduces the chance of them wanting real freedom. But democracy hides the fact that we live in a bourgeois dictatorship where the bourgeoisie holds the means of material production and controls the state, a state which will suddenly drop all pretence of democratic rights and resort to violence whenever its power is threatened. Democracy under capitalism is an ideology rather than a fact, and it is an ideology used against the working class time and again.

Working class democracy

Unlike bourgeois democracy, where your choice is limited to putting a cross on a bit of paper to choose which member of the ruling class to send to Westminster, where once they’re elected they can do as they like, and where your next chance to have a say is years away, proletarian democracy is based on the fact that unless the working class actively participate in running their own lives, socialism itself cannot function. The early years of the Russian Revolution showed how workers democracy worked, with free discussions in workers councils leading to the election of delegates to a higher soviet. The workers’ councils held real power in the early years of the Revolution and weren’t just empty talking shops. They sprung up in workplaces and neighbourhoods and were the places where the working class made collective decisions in how things should be done. They set up commissions to look at specific issues and drew up practical plans of action. Their delegates were recallable; if they didn’t represent the views of the workers who voted for them they were instantly called back and replaced with someone who did. It’s the exact opposite of the systems we currently live under and needless to say all mention of it sends the ruling class into a defensive frenzy but the fact remains: unless and until the working class take power and actively start running their own lives, the more our rulers will use their so-called democratic systems to impose ever more misery and exploitation on us.


Dear comrades,

I liked a lot of stuff in this article. Might translate it to French or develop on it. Could somebody tell me where the Faubert quote comes from?


I like all the stuff in this article. In fact I like all the ICT's articles :their clarity, brevity, hard-hitting points, ability to put across complex ideas in a straightforward manner, and finally, the delicious irony that runs through them eg 'of course Iceland is unusual in allowing it's voters to vote on real issues, and its ruling class is working out how to get round the problem...' and that AV voting is a tried and tested method in 'Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea' (lol). That you can express the proletariat's understanding so well -and in good humor, despite the seriousness of the issues - underlines for me your trustworthiness and honesty as proletarian militants. If only the majority of the class knew what they are missing! That'll be the day.


I searched the quote out as I'd heard it before and I couldn't place it in any of Flaubert's works that I remember reading back when I read lots of fiction, he was one of my favorite writers. As it turns out it was from an 1871 Letter to George Sand according the attribution I found online.

The whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletarian to the level of stupidity attained by the bourgeois.Gustave Flaubert

Why shouldn't we vote whenever we get the chance? I love it when the unions ask us to vote about something. It makes me feel real good. I can go somewhere very quiet and secret and do it on my own. I like that. None of this mass meetings rubbish and all doing the same thing, like a herd of sheep. And the last thing we want to do is to think about what we're doing, and cause trouble for the system. After all, if this system was to go, what would we do then? Yes. You think about that. And I also prefer George Eliot to Flaubert. So there!

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