Hello? Is this thing still working? Can anyone still hear me?
Hi. I’m back. It’s been a long time. How are you?
Me? Well, for the past nine months I’ve been working for Yes to Fairer Votes and, by mutual consent, it was agreed that it might be better if I suspended my gobshite-related activities for the duration of the campaign.
Needless to say, those restrictions no longer apply and so I’m free to resume my blogging activities. I have to admit that it feels good to be able to express myself again, although I’m still finding my feet again.
I can’t really get away with resuming this blog without reflecting on the campaign that has dominated my life for a whole year (and it is a whole year – one year ago, I was busy working on the final preparations for the Take Back Parliament demo that took place the following day. At the time we had absolutely no idea what a success those demonstrations would be).
As you may be away, we lost, and we lost badly. Why is that? Well, yes, the No campaign was an absolute shocker. They lied and they lied and they lied. Unlike many however, I am struggling to be that angry with them. You need only look at the people behind the campaign to realise that that is simply in their nature; it’s what they do. If a mad dog mauls your child, that is of course terrible; but the real question is what you did to protect her.
I don’t want to dwell too much on what the official Yes campaign did right or wrong here; I’m still feeling bruised and I have a tremendous amount of respect for most of the people who worked so hard on the campaign – both paid and unpaid. I don’t think it would be fair to them for me to wash my dirty laundry in public this weekend. Suffice to say that I am pretty confident that I’m not the only staffer who feels that that wasn’t the campaign we signed up for. There are some serious and hard lessons to be learned and I hope we face up to them in a constructive, honest and ultimately conciliatory manner.
But the fact is that we’d have struggled to win a Yes vote even if we had run the best campaign we could. There are at least three factors which seriously hindered us:
Firstly, let’s face it, Nick Clegg and the Lib Dem brand more generally hung around our necks like the proverbial albatross. We anticipated this as long ago as June last year, but the party’s Gerald Ratner moment over tuition fees took even the most cynical among us back.
It can’t however all be pinned on Clegg. The simple fact is if Labour had a stronger leader we would have been in a much stronger position. I like Ed Miliband personally and sincerely hope he can turn it around. But it is clear that he commands very little authority or respect within both his parliamentary party and the Labour Party at large.
There is no escaping the fact that if David Miliband had won in September, the Labour No campaign would have been a rump compared to what it ended up being and that if David Cameron had wanted to find a convenient Labour figleaf to share a platform with, he’d have had to settle for a no-mark like Tom Harris rather than Lord Reid.
(Why this is, to a certain extent, mystifies me. Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership fair and square by winning the union vote. How Labour members can be both precious about their “historic Labour-union links” and so disparaging when the union members do something they don’t like is beyond me.)
Labour really needs to learn the lessons of this week. A lot of Labour politicians are hellbent on a strategy that is about destroying the Lib Dems, even if it means effectively letting Cameron off the hook. There’s no getting away from the fact that the Lib Dems are now seriously weakened, but what has that gained Labour? There is no sign of us returning to a two-party system; look at Scotland. Labour let the Tories win the popular vote in England, which is an absolutely extraordinary failure. Even at the Lib Dems’ nadir, one in four people just voted for a third-party candidate. And there are signs that it is other third parties that are filling the vacuum, with the Greens now the largest party in Brighton. The combined failure of Labour and the Lib Dems to ensure that the cold light of scrutiny falls on the Conservatives is nothing short of tragic.
But finally, the process leading to the referendum itself was highly problematic. If there is one thing the No campaign argued that has merit, it is that it was a political stitch up.
Unlike some, I am not of the view that AV was the wrong system to fight the referendum on; it may well have been our best option. The fact is that the British don’t like radical change and AV was a quintessentially modest reform. With the country unused to coalition government, it is entirely plausible to believe that the public would have turned against any system which would have all but guaranteed future hung parliaments.
But that said, the way in which AV became the preferred system was not ideal. Making a specific voting system a precondition of a coalition agreement is problematic because it will inevitably look as if the only reason that particular system is being pushed is that it suits one of the coalition parties. That’s why it was so hard to separate the Lib Dems from AV itself, even though it isn’t even our preferred system.
What should have happened? Well, holding out for PR would have been a pipedream and we would have found Labour formally backing the No campaign. In my view what we should have done was to establish a Citizen’s Assembly and guarantee that any system agreed by that body would be subject to a referendum. Would the Tories have agreed to an independent process which could potentially have lead to a PR system being proposed? It is for better informed coalition watchers than I to decide that question.
Where now for electoral and political reform? Well, there is no question that we have our work cut out, but I’m feeling oddly optimistic. A lot of people around the country have worked hard on this campaign but the rout and infighting that I had feared does not appear to have emerged. By contrast, what I’m seeing is a lot of people steeling themselves, learning from the experience, and determined to move onto the next fight (after perhaps a bit of a breather), as soon as possible.
If history tells us anything it is that the road to political reform is littered with failed campaigns which indirectly helped lead to reform within just a few years. This experience has galvanised a whole generation of campaigners. Because the No campaign felt they could only win by talking complete horseshit, there is little sense that the matter has been settled (even if it does look exceedingly unlikely that AV itself will ever be presented as a compromise option). If I were a reactionary supporter of the status quo, I wouldn’t underestimate the ability of people to bounce back and learn from this experience.