Crawling from the wreckage

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Hello? Is this thing still working? Can anyone still hear me?

Testing… testing…

Ahem.

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.

29 thoughts on “Crawling from the wreckage

  1. “Where now for electoral and political reform?”

    There will be no reform – clearly it’s utterly pointless when 60% of the country don’t give a fuck and don’t bother to vote at all.

    My vote remains meaningless and, frankly, I really don’t think I can be bother to vote ever again despite having done so in every election I was able since I was 18.

    Seriously – what is the point any more?

  2. “They lied and they lied and they lied.”

    And? This is politics!

    What do you think every politician has been doing in the lead up to every election since Cain and Abel were kids?

    “Vote for me and you’ll be farting through silk!” or” Vote for them and they’ll cut your granny’s throat!”.

    That’s it, that is politics.

    Damn, in the run up to the euro-elections we actually had The Times reporting that we weren’t going to stand. Couldn’t even get the little shit to apologise, let alone make a correction.

    Blimey, if you think that politicians tell the truth on the stump then you must think they shit rainbows as well.

  3. Ed Miliband was elected by union votes, but only because of… AV! The fact that a should-be runner up resultantly commands no respect amongst his electors is just one of the many, many reasons 7 in 10 people see AV for the rotten idea it is.

  4. @GoingPostal13

    What’s the point? The point is to win next time. The referendum was clearly a setback but what on earth would giving up achieve?

    @Tim Worstall

    I find the defensiveness of people about the fact that the No campaign lied quite remarkable. Was I blaming it all on their campaigning style? If you think that you really do need go back and read it again. Indeed, my point was that we can’t just piss and moan about it; we should have done a better job at discrediting them.

    Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out that while innuendo and exaggeration is par for the course in political campaigns, this referendum did take things to unprecedented new levels for the UK. You might be comfortable with that; I’m not.

    @MichaelC

    Actually, if the Labour leadership election had been held using a straightforward system of one person one vote first past the post, Ed Miliband would have beaten David Miliband by 125,649 to 114,205.

  5. “what on earth would giving up achieve?”

    About as much as thinking there’ll ever be any kind of voting reform. Yeah, pretty paradoxical innit?

    The No win is already being trumpeted as people don’t want voting reform – this is the whole stupidity of it all – AV might not have been a big stride forward but saying now is massive jump backwards.

    Voting reform simply isn’t going to happen – not while it benefits those in power and those in power makes the rules.

    It’s futile and tbh I simply can’t see the point in voting anymore.

  6. Good to see you back. Thanks for the thought-provoking posting. Agree with the need for a Citizens’ Assembly, I’ve felt for a long time that addressing only the house of commons (or the house of lords, or the executive) without re-examing all other branches of government wouldn’t be terribly productive. An assembly is probably the only way of both coming up with a solution that would work for Britain and capture the imagination and acceptance of the number of people it would need to be passed at the inevitable referendum. How could such an assembly be run without support from the government? That is the question we should probably move onto now.

  7. The NO2AV campaign did not tell lies. Presumably you are talking about the claim that AV would cost £5 or £6 per voter because of electronic voting machines. Well if you had won, and if we had never made that argument, we would certainly have got voting machines.

    It was a necessary argument to make.

  8. @George Pender

    No. It was a lie. They’ve even admitted it was a lie – do catch up.

    If voting machines were set to be introduced before the No campaign started talking about them then the Electoral Commission, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office would all have been working on the contingency of introducing voting machines in the event of a Yes vote. They weren’t.

    The No campaign were also in a position of ruling it out. Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander already had done, so why on Earth didn’t David Cameron and George Osborne.

    In the current economic climate, it would have been completely unacceptable to introduce fripperies such as voting machines. They were introduced in the early 00s (by prominent No campaigner John Prescott no less) because the government of the day was fundamentally technocratic and happy to spend taxpayers money on gimmicks.

    The only reason why Cameron and Osborne didn’t rule them out was because they were playing cheap politics. Worse, it would appear that in order to punish the electorate, they were willing for force voting machines, and all the problems that come with them, on us in the event of a Yes vote. It was a disgrace from start to finish.

  9. The timing of the referendum to coincide with the first post-coalition elections was a major hindrance. Take Scotland, for example. There’s no good reason why AV should have been defeated so decisively there. The Scottish people are already using AMS for the Scottish Parliament, STV for local government and PR for the Euros. The negative Tory campaign wouldn’t have had much impact there. The Nats were arguing that it didn’t go far enough, which obviously didn’t help. But, for the most part, the failure of the AV referendum north of the border was just part of the national ‘kick Clegg over tuition fees’ day. Very unfortunate. I think your description of tuition fees as our ‘Gerald Ratner’ moment was apt. A Citizen’s Assembly is a great idea. Short term, the focus must be on keeping Lords reform moving forward. The danger now is that the Tories will take advantage of our weaker position to row back on other commitments.

  10. The £250m figure was never “made up”.

    It was costed, but that’s different.

    It was based on an estimate in the absence of an official figure – because any assessment would FOLLOW a change in the voting system – but that’s different.

    It was predicated on past experience (Scotland, London and internationally), and explored the rationale of the Australian experience as to whether that did or didn’t provide a precedent since the Federal change predated machine counting, but that’s different (complicated, but different).

    It was, as Blunkett actually said, a total figure that encapsulated both dedicated spend (on the referendum) plus the ballot change/machines figure, but that’s different (and that was always made clear in the No press material – go back and check the briefing notes, which I suspect the Yes side never did).

    The problem with your team was you made a kneejerk call on the costs assessment without actually looking into the background. And that’s symptomatic. All righteous outrage and no objectivity. You ended up believing your own propaganda – a fatal mistake for any campaign.

    1. Sorry but this is laughable. There was no “past experience” – we haven’t introduced AV in the UK before, unless you count council by-elections in Northern Ireland and Scotland where votes are counted by hand. Voting machines aren’t needed in Scotland either – they just introduced them because Labour loves throwing money at a problem – even when there isn’t a problem that needs solving.

      Essentially, your entire argument is predicated on the idea that David Cameron is as much of a witless mug as John Prescott. If you believe that, then you should have been campaigning to sack David Cameron, not to reject voting reform.

    2. And where is this “international evidence”? Australia where they count AV by hand? Ireland where they count the much more complex STV by hand? Or the US where they count FPTP by machine?

  11. Angela Harbutt has written a piece on the referendum for Liberal Vision:

    “The scale of incompetence by the YES campaign simply cannot be overstated. It is so vast and so staggering that it won’t merely fill column inches for days, if not weeks to come, it will be the subject of PhD theses for decades to come. It is unlikely that a wilful infiltration of the YES campaign by the NO side – at the most senior levels – could have resulted in a more calamitous result. The enormity of this professional political campaigning disaster is without parallel in modern British history.”

    http://www.liberal-vision.org/2011/05/08/the-humiliation-of-the-yes-campaign/

  12. Moreover, when the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and the Electoral Commission all confirmed that counting machines wouldn’t be needed, the claim wasn’t withdrawn.

  13. Maybe we should have done a pilot for AV. e.g. in a Westminster by-election.

    I suggest this because most of the arguments which swung the referendum seem to be concerning things which could be established one way or the other. e.g. is it practical to run an AV count without voting machines and how much would it cost?, would people be confused by the process or would they like it better once they had used it, would it produce perverse results?

    I think it would have been much harder for the No campaign if there had already been some elections under AV within the UK and the views of people who had taken part in them were a major part of the debate.

    Trouble is the referendum result was so one-sided I’m not sure we could propose this now.

  14. @James Graham

    Not quite James, you’re forgetting Labour’s electoral college rules. Sure if you’ve just added up the votes across the three parts of the college, Ed Miliband got more votes (though not necessarily more supporters, what with Hattie Harman having something like seven votes to play with etc… but that’s another issue). However, each part of the college is worth a third, so in terms of the vote share once this has been applied, Ed was in second place to David until the very last votes were re-distributed.

  15. @MichaelC

    I haven’t forgotten that Michael, I just think it is a lamentable system. Ed Miliband won the most votes; the fact that the ridiculous college system forced him to win a supermajority is another matter.

    Scrap the system or stop pretending you value the union-Labour link. Simples.

  16. The main problem with AV was that no one on the “Yes” side seemed in favour of it. The best argument people could come up with is that was a step in the right direction, whatever that meant.

    With the benefit a year was too short an amount of time to win.

    We could have won if the Labour Party and the trade union movement had come out in favour.

  17. Given that we actually got voting machines in london for the last “AV like” mayoral election (something which will hopefully be canned) I think it’s you who has been proved wrong.

    I never suggested that the £250 million figure was well researched. Personally I suspect it would have been more than £6 per person which seems very little to me.

  18. The last “AV-like” election (using preferential, number voting) was the Scottish local elections. Not a single voting machine was used across the whole country.

    Still peddling myths I see. Why break the habit of a lifetime?

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