Monday, April 4, 2011

Britain's AV Vote and the US

This certainly isn't one of my normal entries because it really doesn't concern living and working in another country, but it does concern something which is could have a huge impact on the USA, but it appears to be largely ignored in the US press (perhaps they don't understand what's going on). In short, Britain will soon vote on whether or not they will adopt the alternative vote. If they do, I predict a long-term political shift away from US world dominance. Things won't be the same again and it's important to understand why.

David Cameron - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2011
David Cameron, Tory Leader
Photo by World Economic Forum
In the UK, there are two main parties, Labour and Conservative (generally known as "Tories"). These are roughly analogous to the US Democrats and Republicans respectively, but with the exception that Tory policies tend to be closer aligned to the US Democrats with the Labour party to the left (though some argued for a while that Labour had gone to the right of the Tories). Unlike the US, there are a variety of smaller parties which actually have an impact on voting, the most important of which is the Liberal Democrat party ("Lib-Dems" for short). I find it hard to pin down exactly what the Lib-Dems stand for, but they tend to support free markets, protection for the disadvantaged, a greener economy and strong civil liberties protection. They also came in third in the 2010 general election and as a precondition of joining their natural enemies, the Tories, they demanded a referendum on the alternative vote.

The UK, like the US, employs a first past the post voting system. This simply means that the candidate with the most votes wins. Unfortunately, it has a nasty side-effect of locking out smaller parties. For example, in the US, many people argued that a vote for Ralph Nader in the 2000 Presidential election was a vote for George Bush. First-past-the-post voting systems tend to produce stable, two-party governments and rarely allow other parties to gain a foothold.

Ed Milliband, Labour Leader
Photo by Off2riorob
In the alternative vote, instead of voting for your candidate of choice, you can choose several and rank them. If a candidate doesn't get 50% of the vote, the lowest candidate is eliminated and and votes for them ignored. The process continues until one candidate has 50% of the vote. It's actually fairly simple and allows people to vote for candidates they want rather than against the candidates they don't want. It's certainly a far cry from proportional representation but it's better than first-past-the-post.

In the UK papers, you find that left-leaning papers support the AV vote while right-wing papers oppose it. In fact, it appears that the only group which opposes the AV vote in the UK is the Tory party (though Labour struggles with the idea). Why? Because the AV vote may very well destroy the Tories and this would have a huge impact on the US.

UK politics is comprised of a number of parties, though their first-past-the-post system still keeps Labour and Tories firmly in power.  In an AV vote system, many smaller parties will have much greater chances to make an impact. Though some claim the impact will be minimal, the reality is that once people realize that they can finally vote for who they want, rather than against who they don't want, politics in the UK could be irrevocably altered and I seriously doubt the UK love affair with the US will survive. And that's why the AV vote could have such a huge impact on the US.

The US and UK have long had what Churchill first described as a special relationship and the UK has long been keen on maintaining it. Part of the problem is simply that the UK doesn't like to think of themselves as part of Europe and thus ceding some influence over world events to a "United States of Europe". Like many countries wanting to maintain influence in world events, the UK has struggled to figure out how to remain relevant. Hence, by hanging on the coattails of the US, the UK has tried to claim themselves a strategic "bridge" between the US and Europe or, in fact, the US and the rest of the world. However, Margaret Thatcher's pro-US policies followed by wide derision of Tony Blair as being George Bush's poodle has led to the UK admitting that the "special relationship" was dead. Tired of being viewed by some as the 51st state, the UK is trying to find a new place in a new world.

Nick Clegg Q&A 12
Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat Leader
Photo by Liberal Democrats
The Tories, though helping to end the notion of the "special relationship," often strongly admire US economics and thus strong ties to the US. My wife, for one of her jobs in the UK, found herself at Tory political meetings where they expressed strong support for the US model and a desire to emulate it more closely. I think this is a desperate attempt to find some way of changing the moribund UK economy. Currently the UK really doesn't offer much in the world other than military influence and a strong banking system. They have little in the way of manufacturing and with the top three economies in the world being the EEA, China and the US, the UK doesn't quite know what they're going to do.

So what does the AV vote do in this context? Most predict that the Tories, the major "pro-US" party, getting locked out of power in the long term. They still have plenty of business support, so they're not going away, but they're going to be limited. Also, much of the UK does not want closer ties to Europe, so it remains to be seen what will happen there, but in an AV UK, I can't imagine the Prime Minister being such a blatant poodle that he would act so strongly against public opinion again. After all, there would be no more of a Clintonesque "who else you gonna vote for?" attitude. Under the AV vote, the British people are going to get a chance to have a new voice and that voice isn't guaranteed to be singing the praises of the US.

For the US, that means that one of our closest allies may very well no longer do what we want them to, thus further isolating the US. Clearly the US can't push China around and without the UK to cajole Europe to play along, the US may find itself having less world influence. Can you imagine the last Iraq war without the UK? I seriously doubt it would have happened. The world would clearly be a far different place. Thus, if the AV referendum passes, world politics could be radically altered in the long term.


  1. The Sino-american relationship is not adversarial. US politicians might often portray it as such ("We must beat the Chinese to the future" kind of prattle). The people of the US and the people of China are traders with each other as well as with each others. And over time we are becoming more dependent on each other. As an example, Lenovo has corporate headquarters in North Caroling, Beijing, and Singapore.

    Consequently, a re-focusing from a 20th century military perspective (US-Britain) to a 21st century partnership (US-China) is certainly significant, but it's all good.

    And as a bonus, politicians around the world will find their power and influence diminishing, while individuals will have more control over their own lives. Their is after all a significant difference between Americans and The US government.

  2. Erm.... Don't forget that UK elections are run at a local constituency level ie you're not voting for a party leader or even a party, you're voting for your local MP. The MP usually associates him/herself with a party though.

    While voters may like/dislike various aspects of the Special Relationship, I don't think it's ever really been a voting issue for the UK electorate, any more than foreign affairs has been for the US electorate.

  3. Also, when you say "Can you imagine the last Iraq war without the UK?" - I can't imagine that that war was contingent on UK participation.

    If the UK had declined to participate, I honestly think the Bush administration would have gone ahead anyway.

  4. For more on the proposed UK Alternative Vote, including why it may not make much of a difference due to the proposed implementation: a recent Economist article and the Google search that found it

  5. almostwitty is right to the extent that we do elect our MPs rather than our PMs. However, candidates usually run on their party's platform to a great extent. UKIP candidates in particular do, though they are more anti-EU than they are anti-US.

  6. As a Pom (Brit) living in Australia this is aparticularly interesting debate. Australia believes it has a "special relationship" with the US too and has supported the US in all of the recent conflicts. Australia also wants some influence in world events, but struggles to figure out how to remain relevant. They also therefore "hang on the coat tails of the US". However, Australia has an AV system. It has recently had an election which has left a messy coalition of Labor, Greens and Independents, but it didn't stop Julia Gillard (AUS PM) kicking an Aussie football around the Oval Office the other month.