On 5th May British citizens will be asked to vote on their preferred voting system; First Past the Post (FPTP) or the Alternative Vote (AV). One of the boldest claims that the proponents of the AV make is that it will give voters “a stronger voice”.
If this were true (I have no idea if it is true I’m afraid) it would be an attractive offer to a lot of people. According to the Citizenship Survey just over a third (37 per cent) of the UK adult population believes they can influence decisions in their local area whereas almost three quarters (73 per cent) feel that it is important to have an influence and 44 per cent said they would like to be more involved in decisions made by councils affecting their local area.
Of course voting is only one part of this problem. There are a number of ways that we can influence the world around us ranging from voting to campaigning to getting out our brooms and cleaning the pavements ourselves.
The government has recognised this and have announced that they will fund the training of 5,000 community organisers; to act as “catalysts for community action at the neighbourhood level”. This has proved to be a controversial decision. There are even those who argue that community organisers should never take money from any government, ever.
Tessy Britton has written a couple of blog posts (here and here) with an interesting take on these questions. I think she is arguing that an Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) (http://abcdeurope.ning.com/) approach is preferable to an Alsinky style community organising approach if you want to build stronger communities.
You might crudely boil the question down to; “do we want to run projects or campaigns?”
I think the discussion can usefully be split into three parts (As Matthew Taylor has written it always seems to be three parts…); building campaigns, building stronger communities and building more empowered communities.
The main achievement that the London Citizens like to boast about is their success in securing the ‘London Living Wage’ for a number of workers, for example cleaners at major banks. This campaign used a number of classic Alinsky style techniques including focusing their campaign on one individual (normally the CEO of the bank in question).
These campaigns are able to achieve certain types of change. They are good at changing the practices of organisations that benefit from a community but are not rooted in that community (e.g. slum landlords, employers that pay low wages etc…).
Building Stronger Communities
The Alinsky model for community organising brings together existing organisations (e.g. churches, trade unions etc…) and gets them to focus on campaigning. Part of Tessy’s argument is that this approach is not conducive to building better connected, creative and stronger communities. Since the campaigns are designed around conflict and attack there is little space for creative collaboration. Instead, she argues that we should use an approach that brings people together in shared spaces in a way that celebrates and builds on those things that people already value. An example she gives of the type of project she supports is the People’s Supermarket.
This type of approach can be very successful, especially in areas that have a large amount of “hidden wealth” i.e. community assets (broadly defined), that can be connected or mobilised.
Building Empowered Communities
This suggests the tricky question; which of these approaches will give people the influence that they seem to want and that AV is promising?
Alinsky’s supporters point towards visible changes that happen directly as a result of their campaigns, whereas the ABCD enthusiasts point to the spontaneous emergence of new projects that arise out of their approach.
You will have to make your own mind up on this question. However, I do see a deeper similarity between the approaches than might be apparent.
Both approaches rely on building and utilising relationships within communities.
The Alinsky model works on the assumption that there are more or less formal associations already in existence within a given area. The organiser’s job is to bring these associations together, to connect the connectors, with a sense of purpose.
The ABCD model also tries to make new connections, although these are often between individuals rather than formal associations. Once these connections have been made the creative collaboration can take place.
One might even speculate that a community organiser using the Alinsky method would be much more successful if they worked in an area that had benefited from one of Tessy’s Traveling Pantries than if they worked in an area where there was much weaker levels of social connection.
But perhaps I am drawing connections where none exist?
There is a tremendous irony at the heart of the current debate on AV. Politicians of all persuasions are looking the electorate in the eye and telling us, as sincerely as they can, that we are the audience with the greatest stake in the issue of voting reform. But their internal debates suggest something rather different. Where does that leave us?
Those in favour of AV tell us how unrepresentative the current system is, how only about a third of MPs secure a majority of the votes in their constituency, how many MPs can effectively ignore the needs and votes of many of their constituents, how the existence of safe seats means some don’t even need to work hard to engage their core support, and how most voters are effectively disenfranchised by this situation.
Those in favour of FPTP invoke the ghoul of perpetual coalition government and compromise, the fact that second, third and fourth choices should not have the same weight as first choices, the relative complexity of AV, and even the fact that AV is too small a step and should be rejected in favour of something closer to PR. Oh, and the fact that the only countries in the world to use AV for national elections are Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji (which is apparently considering a change anyway).
These are all reasonable arguments, and positive reasons to engage with the question of electoral reform. They should in themselves persuade people that it matters to them and encourage them to think about it and vote on it.
And yet, when those same politicians look each other in the eye, the debate takes a rather different course. Those in favour of AV claim that FPTP is mainly being defended by politicians with a stake in it (mostly the Conservatives). Those in favour of FPTP claim AV is really being advanced as a mechanism for increasing the power of the Lib Dems.
In other words, the debate turns negative, and is about power for politicians, not power for the people. And politicians, let’s not forget, have the loudest voices on this issue, so people are well aware of their internal wranglings. The debate on Newsnight a couple of nights ago, in which four politicians spoke a lot and two non-politicians said less, was a case in point.
Isn’t this exactly what we don’t need? Our voting system is at the heart of the relationship between Parliament and the electorate, and all politicians acknowledge that something needs to be done to engage with us again (even if they can’t agree on how). Surely an extended debate on the future of that system should be taken as an opportunity to re-engage people, and to persuade them of the importance of their part in the electoral relationship? It would be a shame if it actually reinforces the disconnect between us.
It comes down to the question of what are we voting for in May – something that matters to us, or something that really concerns the fortunes of 650 (for now) MPs?