Electoral Reform – R.I.P.

…in which I am bitter and say “I told you so” a lot…
A year ago today, I spent the day stood outside my local polling station, trying to convince people to vote for a change to the Alternative Vote. We all know how that went.
We all know that the No campaign made up numbers about the cost of AV. We all know that we lost by a landslide. Through six months of campaigning not only didn’t we appear to capture a single undecided vote – from the final numbers it looks like we actually lost people who at the start of the campaign had said they’d vote for us.
Frankly, the Yes campaign was run so badly, we deserved to lose. There are two anecdotes that will give you enough of an insight into both the national and the regional campaigns to understand quite how abysmally the show was run. Firstly, on a national level we had the right to send out a direct mailing to every household in the UK that would have been paid for by the Electoral Commission. Yes, that would have been free to us. We didn’t. Read that again. The national campaign failed to get its act together sufficiently to send out the free mailing. In the meantime the No campaign cheerfully took advantage of their free mailing to send us leaflets telling us that no tax payers’ money had been used in sending said leaflets. Some households received four or five pieces of literature from the No campaign and none from us. Secondly, with 15 days to go to polling day I attended a staff meeting at the North East campaign office to discuss the plan for the remaining campaign time. The extent of the plan was “We have to do something every day”. And frankly, we didn’t even manage to do that.
No sooner were the results in that everyone who was anyone in the Yes campaign started writing their memoirs, pointing fingers at everyone else while completely exonerating themselves. Some of them remembered to thank the volunteers in the process; most didn’t.
All of that, however, is water under the bridge. The one bone I still have to pick is with all those people who voted against AV because it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t PR/STV/insert acronym of your choice here. It was a “miserable little compromise” (thank you, Nick Clegg). It is thanks to those electoral reform purists that the electoral reform agenda has now been buried for the foreseeable future. The really sad thing, dear purists, is that you were played. You were played from start to finish.
We were all dealt a crap hand – that was the whole point. We were given the option of keeping the status quo or making a minor change, a change that was a compromise, that no one in the pro-reform camp really saw as an ideal state; a change that the man who at the time could arguably be seen as one of the strongest pro-reform voices had gone on the record calling a “miserable little compromise”. We were given that crap hand deliberately and instead of taking it and making the best of it, we played it about as badly as we could have.
Having sown division in our ranks from the start, the Conservatives and other supporters of the outdated voting system we have were free to stand back and watch us tear ourselves apart. The LibDems were so terrified of the impending local election doom that they completely failed to support the AV campaign appropriately. Faced with practically certain obliteration in many councils, they still chose to throw their resources down that hole rather than take a long-term view.
The Yes campaign consisted of a fragile coalition of pro-reform groups with barely enough experience and clearly not enough resources between them to get a campaign going. We failed to reach out convincingly beyond the small group of dedicated activists we already had. We failed to build bridges with other groups whose interests potentially overlapped with ours, including the nascent anti-cuts movement, student occupations and other campaign groups. In a political climate increasingly hostile to the government, we kept harping on about the expenses scandal – a message that had played well 18 months previously when someone had had money to conduct the research, but had pretty much stopped being relevant by the time our campaign even started.
All of this time some of the strongest supporters of electoral reform in general opposed this kind of electoral reform in particular, because it wasn’t good enough; because in their eyes it was going to block the path to further reform. Yet somehow they never saw that a no vote would close the door on reform for good. I guess they got what they wanted.
So where are we a year down the line? The only mention of electoral reform over the past 12 months was at the Conservative Party Conference, where speaker after speaker triumphantly declared that the British people had said that FPTP was the best thing since sliced bread. The LibDems are now licking their wounds after another set of spectacular losses in local elections up and down the country. I spoke to a LibDem activist a few weeks ago who said most of them felt too bruised still from the AV campaign to even contemplate electoral reform again. The fragile coalition that was the Yes campaign has died a quiet, and frankly unmourned death, with a lot of bad blood between the different organisations and no clear direction for anyone left in this space who would like to continue to fight for electoral reform.
If you wanted PR and didn’t ruin a good pair of shoes campaigning for AV, didn’t even bother to vote for AV, I hope what you got is what you hoped for. It sure isn’t what I hoped for.

12 thoughts on “Electoral Reform – R.I.P.

  1. Rachel Walmsley

    The one big thing that I take away from this post, and probably from the referendum as a whole, is that in modern democracy, the actual ideas being espoused are probably less important than how effectively they are campaigned for. This is unsurprising, but still sad.
    (And I didn’t campaign because my health is and was bad enough to make leaving my flat difficult. But I did vote for it in spite of my health being bad enough that leaving my flat was difficult.)

  2. Jennie

    “The LibDems were so terrified of the impending local election doom that they completely failed to support the AV campaign appropriately. Faced with practically certain obliteration in many councils, they still chose to throw their resources down that hole rather than take a long-term view.”
    Also, many in the Yes campaign were telling us to eff off because we were going to be electoral poison because everybody hated us for being in bed with the Tories, and if it was seen as being just a Lib Dem issue then the campaign was doomed.
    This was stupid on two fronts. Firstly, Lib Dems are seasoned at campaigning and organising campaigns on very little money, and if the Yes campaign had have let us we could have made some difference. Secondly, this attitude also fed into the failure to embrace UKIP, who had money and were offering the Yes campaign money and were snubbed because of similar (anti)party tribalism.

  3. Rachel Coleman Finch (@rmc28)

    At least some hardy souls in the LibDems haven’t lost their appetite for the fight: http://www.libdemvoice.org/a-new-start-liberal-democrats-for-electoral-reform-27553.html
    After pouring most of my spare time, energy and quite a lot of money into Yes2AV last year, I am still feeling too bruised on the topic to join them, at least for now, but I’m glad they exist.
    (Am I the LD activist you spoke to, at ORGCon? I didn’t intend my own feelings to be taken as representative of all LibDems!)

  4. Dakota

    Re: the ‘electoral reform purists’ – the Tories didn’t have to ‘sow division’ because, as Clegg’s comment revealed, it was already there. I think AV is a *worse* system than FPTP, offering the illusion of improvement without actually delivering it. I fully support PR. Clearly the argument ‘vote for this and we may get something better further down the line’ is a hard sell as it is, but when there’s absolutely no reason to believe that something better would come aside from wishful thinking, it’s an impossible one.
    I also don’t agree that it’s ‘closed the door on reform for good’. Has everyone who wants change just packed up and gone home? No, we still want change and still push for it. That’s a long-term view.
    The problem is that the economy is everything at the moment and that makes it quite absurdly easy to paint talk of electoral reform as the obsession of a bourgeoise elite who don’t care about growing poverty etc. This won’t last forever. The turnout in the elections last week underlines the crisis of legitimacy faced by our political system – one way or another, change will come.

  5. Milena Popova

    In all fairness, I’ve yet to hear anything about electoral reform from *any* of the LibDems I talk to on a regular basis – it’s not just you. But yes, I understand that there are a few brave souls out there, and good on them. 🙂

  6. Milena Popova

    From where I’m standing it looks very much like everyone who wants reform has packed up and gone home – and more to the point a lot of relationships and alliances have been broken by a. the division in the pro-reform vote over AV and b. how badly the campaign failed.
    Showing that reform was possible and that FPTP wasn’t the best thing since sliced bread to me would have had enormous value. Right now if you try to raise the question the only answer you’d get is “the people have spoken and they liked FPTP”.

  7. Milena Popova

    Agree with you on failure to embrace UKIP – much though I can’t stand them, Nigel Farage was extremely eloquent on the subject and would have been an asset to the campaign.
    My personal experience of LibDem involvement was that while a lot of campaign staff were LibDems, even they struggled to engage local parties who were just to focused on the local elections and wouldn’t even deliver leaflets for us. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

  8. Milena Popova

    It is indeed sad. And I fully understand why you didn’t campaign – it was the “AV isn’t good enough” people that I had a problem with.

  9. Matt Moran

    It was kind of a case of being damned either way, really – if AV had been passed, those opposed to PR/STV would have said “Well, you have AV, be happy with that. It’ll cost too much to make further reforms” – essentially the same argument they made against AV but with more justification having spent X millions on the referendum & then setting up AV. If (as happened) we didn’t get AV, they’d turn it into a ringing endorsement of the status quo. The only principled response would have been a mass ballot-spoiling, writing in “PR/STV or nothing!” – so that even though the referendum was lost it would be with a resounding majority protesting (as opposed to abstaining), showing that the choices offered were all unsatisfactory.

  10. Danny Zinkus

    I don’t disagree with you about how the last 18 months have turned out for the electoral reform community. It’s been not so good at best.
    But, looking at the fundamentals I’m more optimistic about the medium term for electoral reform in the UK.
    The broad electoral trends still support our arguments, we are currently using a variety of electoral systems in the UK, House of Lords Reform gives us several opportunities to discuss and promote electoral reform and as a community we are more experienced.
    So, I think rumours of the death of electoral reform are exaggerated.
    More here for those that want some meat on my view point.

  11. Milena Popova

    It’s nice to see lots of Yes campaigners coming out of the woodwork to comment here! Maybe there *is* still hope. 🙂
    I can only hope you’re right, and I definitely do believe that our arguments are still valid. I am, however, not holding my breath on House of Lords reform, and I do believe that at least for the next few years any attempt to open debate will be shut down with “We gave you a referendum and no one cared”. But yeah, fingers crossed.

  12. pozorvlak

    Yeah, the Tories played a blinder by making it a referendum on AV rather than any of the many better systems they could have chosen.


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