Tag Archives: electoral-reform

Ed Miliband stone pledges

Random thoughts on the election

I haven’t had much sleep, but here are a few random thoughts about the election.

I’m angry with the Labour Party. I did my bit: I voted Labour in a constituency where they are in second place to a Tory with a majority of 106 (Hendon). I admit, I didn’t do that last time, high as I was on the prospect of the LDs getting 30% of the vote, which turned out to be a false dawn. But I didn’t make that mistake twice.

But where the hell were Labour? During the campaign proper, just one highly generic Labour leaflet was hand delivered in our area. By me. It was clear that the guy in charge of distribution was overwhelmed and didn’t really have a clue what he was doing. Sure, they hurled a load of equally generic and uninspiring literature out in the post, but there was virtually no evidence of a campaign at grassroots level. My wife and mother in law, who had offered to help, were given nothing to do (apart from the aforementioned leaflet and a target letter a few weeks earlier). You’d be forgiven for thinking Hendon was a safe Tory seat from the level of activity either party were putting into it on the ground.

Meanwhile, Labour activists in North London are busy patting themselves on the back for booting Lynne Featherstone out of Hornsey and Wood Green. Leaving aside any personal feelings I might have about that, Labour winning in Hornsey did not help to deny the Tories a majority government one iota. A win in Hendon would have.

That’s elementary electoral maths. Of course, you can’t predict what is going to happen in each individual seat. But if you put zero effort into the Tory marginal and bust a gut winning the Lib Dem marginal, then it is hard to deny that you had rather skewed priorities. And this pattern seems to be reflected across the country, with Labour going all out in Lib Dem constituencies and just tinkering in Tory seats. Norwich is another clear example, with Labour failing to gain Norwich North whilst slugging it out with the Lib Dems and Greens in Norwich South.

Labour made a huge deal out of their doorstep operation at the start of the campaign. I suspect it may have been exaggerated, but assuming for a moment that it wasn’t, it’s clear they were marching on the wrong bloody doorsteps. Who was making these calls? Presumably the same person who commissioned that ridiculous pledge stone. Presumably the person who decided on those meaningless “pledges” which were carved onto the pledge stone.

Anyone who says that Miliband failed because he went back to the politics of Michael Foot deserves to have their head rammed against that blasted lump of rock. Because say what you like about Michael Foot, he’d never have lead a campaign which was based around six vague and meaningless pledges like those ones. And he certainly wouldn’t have dreamed of doing something as hubristic as engraving them anywhere. I mean seriously. Would Michael Foot have cribbed an abbreviated Tory campaign slogan from ten years ago like “Controls on Immigration”? If you’re going to blow a racist dog whistle, at least find one that isn’t so ineffectual.

Labour didn’t lose because it veered to the left. It lost because it has no idea what it is. Either an authentically left wing Labour Party or an authentically right wing Labour Party would have done better than this vague shower.

The country didn’t turn to the Conservatives. Seriously, look at the results. Overall, they gained 0.8% of the share of the vote. Labour gained 1.5% of the vote share (if they hadn’t lost votes to the SNP in Scotland, they’d now be neck and neck). That the former shift gifted the Tories 23 more seats while the latter even larger positive shift cost Labour 26 seats isn’t just stupid; it’s morally repugnant.

The examples of how this voting system has denied the British public its voice are everywhere: the SNP winning 95% of the seats in Scotland with just 50% of the Scottish vote. The fact that the Tories have done virtually the same thing in the South of England. The fact that the SNP won 56 as many MPs as UKIP despite winning almost a third of their UK share of the vote (4.7% versus 12.6%).

The thing that seems to be giving some people pause for thought about electoral reform today is the prospect of it leading to a Conservative-UKIP coalition. That’s a hard bullet to dodge; all things being equal, it’s exactly what would have happened, albeit with the slenderest of majorities. However, it is also the case that all things wouldn’t have been equal. For one thing, the Greens would almost certainly have got more votes. For another, we wouldn’t have seen Tories voting tactically in the north for UKIP because their own party was a wasted vote. And UKIP’s own populist leftwing positioning would either force them into getting some concessions from the Tories or would have bitten them in the bum.

I’d go as far as to say that even a UKIP/Con coalition would be better than what we got for the simple reason that it would have included Conservative and UKIP MPs from across the UK. The “Maggie Simpsonification” of the UK would simply not have happened. Given the choice between a monolithic one party rightwing government with no representation north of the border and a wafer thin majority and a two party government rightwing government with some representation north of the border, I’d take the latter every time.

Maggie Simpson UK election map

I would strongly urge you to sign this petition and get stuck into the campaign for voting reform in the UK.

There is nothing good about the Lib Dem humiliation. It’s no secret that I was no Nick Clegg fan. I didn’t quit the Lib Dems because of him, but he certainly wasn’t doing anything to keep me there. But I certainly don’t take any pleasure over what happened to them yesterday. They didn’t deserve it, and British politics is the worse for losing them. Hell, it’s the worse for losing the bloody Orange Bookers.

The dismay I’ve seen online in response to the prospect of a majority Tory government bears this out. The capacity for leftie magical thinking never ceases to amaze me. Somehow people can vote for a party that they no has zero chance of winning in a Lib Dem-Conservative marginal seat and still be dismayed when the Lib Dems get wiped out as if magical pixie voters were going to keep them elected so they didn’t have to. So many people who spent the last five years insisting that the Lib Dems made absolutely no difference in government seem to now be reeling off lists and lists of dreadful Tory policies which will now be implemented without the Lib Dems in the way to stop them.

Let’s be clear: yes, the fact of the coalition, the tuition fees “original sin” and Nick Clegg’s unpopularity were strategic dead albatrosses around their necks. Yes, they ran a dreadful, confused and negative campaign (at least the air war; I can’t comment about campaigns on the ground because I wasn’t there). But at the end of the day they lost in no small part due to a fit of pique by voters more concerned about their own political purity than stopping the Tories. That’s on them. It was on me when I did the same thing five years ago, so I know how it feels. I don’t condemn anyone for doing it – I understand the temptation – but I do expect them to accept responsibility for it.

Will the UK voting system survive 2015?

Consider the following bizarre potential outcomes for the 2015 general election:

  • The SNP romp home, winning well over 20 seats. The Green Party also do the best they’ve ever done, gaining 5% of the national vote. Yet the latter party only win a single seat despite getting a higher UK share of the vote than the former.
  • UKIP do the best they’ve ever achieved in a general election, with 16% of the vote. They only win around half a dozen seats however. The Lib Dems meanwhile creep home with just 15% of the vote, yet hold onto over 20 seats.
  • Labour gets slightly fewer votes than the Conservatives. Despite this poor performance, they win more seats than their opponent. Their total vote share hovers at around 60% of the vote, the lowest combined score since 1918.
  • No single party gains a majority. More than that, no two party majority is possible, with the exception of a Labour-Conservative coalition.

I’m not suggesting that all of these outcomes are going to happen, merely that at this point in time they are all feasible. If they do all happen at once, it will be the perfect storm of electoral outcomes which will put our single member plurality voting system (“SMP”)* under greater strain than it has ever known.

This has in fact been a long time in coming. The reality is that “two party politics” is a historical quirk that has only enjoyed a very brief period of popularity. The modern political party as we now regard it didn’t even exist when the Third Reform Act was passed in 1884 enfranchising most men over the age of 21. 16 years later the Labour Party was born and we had decades of 3+ party politics until the Liberals pretty much gave up the ghost in the 1930s and 40s. In 1951, two party politics reached its apex with the combined Labour-Conservative vote reaching 96.8% but by 1974 that was down to 75.1% and in long term decline.

We can see this trend by looking at how the gap between Effective Number of Parties (“ENP”) by votes and seats has widened over the last 70 years (ENP is an academic concept used to estimate the number of parties active in an election according to their relative strengths). As you can see, the disparity between votes and seats has widened almost inexorably.

Effective Number of Parties by UK General Elections, 1945-2010 (Gallagher, Michael, 2014. Election indices dataset at  http://www.tcd.ie/Political_Science/staff/michael_gallagher/ElSystems/index.php,  accessed 1 January 2015).
Effective Number of Parties by UK General Elections, 1945-2010 (Gallagher, Michael, 2014. Election indices dataset at
http://www.tcd.ie/Political_Science/staff/michael_gallagher/ElSystems/index.php,
accessed 1 January 2015).

Indeed, it is also worth bearing in mind that the voting system itself was stitched up to reinforce this hegemony. SMP is not, in fact, the only voting system to have been used in a House of Commons election. Multi member constituencies were quite common for urban areas at first, and university seats were elected using Single Transferable Vote from 1917 until 1950. You can see how, in the first decade after single member constituencies were universally adopted in 1950, the disparity between votes and seats actually got worse. By contrast, if we had not gone down that route, it seems likely that UK elections would have done a better job at reflecting votes cast.

Josep Colomer asserts that as political systems embrace multi-party politics, they tend to drift inexorably towards proportional representation.

A crucial point, however, is that coordination failures can be relatively more frequent under majoritarian electoral systems, especially for the costs of information transmission, bargaining, and implementation of agreements among previously separate organizations, as well as the induction of strategic votes in favor of the larger candidacies. With coordination failures, people will waste significant amounts of votes, voters’ dissatisfaction with the real working of the electoral system may increase, and large numbers of losing politicians are also likely to use voters’ dissatisfaction and their own exclusion, defeat or under-representation to develop political pressures in favor of changing to more proportional electoral rules.

In other words, eventually the ability to “do politics” using a majoritarian system becomes increasingly difficult as more parties become effective agents within the system. He goes on to suggest that “above 4 ENPs, establishing or maintaining a majority rule electoral system would be highly risky for the incumbent largest party, and possibly not feasible either due to pressures for an alternative change supported by a majority of votes.”

Sadly Colomer doesn’t actually tell us how this switch will happen, but we are already seeing the current system falling apart. Of all the potential outcomes I listed at the top of this article, the biggest problem from a governance point of view is that difficulty we might encounter in forming a government. In 2010 (and despite the more fruity speculation by some), the arithmetical logic behind the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was quite straightforward: there was simply no other way to form a two party coalition, apart from a Conservative-Labour one of course. Despite some sunny optimism about the viability of a Labour-LD-SNP-Unionist government, the fact is that such a rainbow would have been incredibly hard to maintain.

A lot of political commentators have asserted that the outcome of the 2015 general election is impossible to predict. They are only half right. It’s actually quite clear which way people are going to vote; what is unpredictable is a voting system that is so poorly suited to its purpose that the numbers that it chews out could go anywhere. That this doesn’t lead more people than it does to declare that it is time to pick another system is a sad testament of how badly let down our media and politicians are letting us down.

After the 2011 AV referendum, the No campaign declared the matter of the voting system settled for a generation. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum has already demonstrated to us how such things are rarely that simple, and it seems likely to me that the debate over whether SMP is any longer fit for purpose will kick off in a big way after this year’s election. At least, it will among the public. The question is whether civil society and the media will join that throng or allow it to peter out. It can’t be left to the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy to make the case.

And how will the political class respond? Will they embrace the tide of history in the way that they did eventually over the Reform Acts and female suffrage, or will they continue to resist it? I hope they’ll take the pragmatic, former option; if they don’t we could be looking at decades of instability. For me, it’s the only truly interesting question about this year’s general election; until we have a system which in some way reflects the settled will of the people, everything else will just be a case of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

* Personally I prefer to refer to the UK voting system as “single member plurality” and not “first past the post”. This is for several reasons. Firstly, it is a simple fact that it better describes the actual system: we have single member constituencies and you win by getting the plurality (largest share of the vote). “First past the post” on the other hand doesn’t actually describe how the system works at all – ironically, to the extent that it describes anything, it better describes the Alternative Vote system/instant run-off voting which actually has a “winning post” (50%). Secondly, it is the internationally recognised description of the system; the UK loves its quirky and confusing names for voting systems (Additional Member System instead of Multi Member Proportional for example), and it is a fairly contemptible bit of British chauvinism. Thirdly, I think that allowing the supporters of SMP to use their preferred, familiar term puts them at an advantage as all other voting systems sound alien and technical in comparison. That’s nonsense, and I don’t think we should allow them the privilege.

Why does the Advertising Standards Authority regulate e-petition campaigns but not referendums?

It is great to see that the Advertising Standards Authority has cracked down on Paul Staines for misleading advertising as part of his campaign in support of his death penalty e-petition. It is not immediately clear however why the ASA feels it has a regulatory role here while it doesn’t have a role in regulating referendum adverts, on the basis of “freedom of speech”.

Election advertising is at least covered by legislation and the courts, something to which Miranda Grell and Phil Woolas can testify. With referendums however, it is a total free for all. At least in the case of elections however, the ASA does issue guidelines. In the case of the referendum, it refused to do even that.

So why does the ASA feel it doesn’t have a role here? As far as I can tell there is nothing in statute which prevents it from having a role and there is certainly no principled difference between regulating referendum and e-petition ads. Both are about influencing public policy; both are affected by freedom of speech.

What’s more, there is a question of significance. While a misleading advert to promote an e-petition might lead to a few extra signatures, it won’t change government policy. Influencing a referendum result with garbage, by contrast, has a significant impact on legislation and the government of the day. One could understand if the ASA had better things to do than to waste its time with Staines; it is harder to see how a referendum isn’t worth its time.

But perhaps it is Staines’ minnow status which is telling here. Cracking down on a small front organisation is pretty elementary; standing up to the combined Conservative establishment and Labour old guard is an altogether more daunting prospect. The decision is only explicable when you look at it in terms of expediency, but that doesn’t make it any more respectable.

Either way, regardless of what the next referendum happens to be on, this loophole in the law urgently needs sorting out. Because next time, it might be a referendum on the death penalty – in which case expect Stains and company to dredge out all the misleading nonsense they’ve just had their knuckles rapped over and worse.

What part of Yes do you not understand?

A review of Don’t Take No For An Answer by Lewis Baston and Ken Ritchie (Biteback Publishing, 2011)

I’ve made several attempts at writing a review of Don’t Take No For An Answer, Lewis Baston and Ken Ritchie’s review of the 2011 referendum and the ongoing campaign for electoral reform. It is a highly readable and engaging book. For someone with less inside knowledge it will no doubt be highly informative. But it is flawed, and I’ve struggled with articulating how without just running down a pedantic list of misconceptions.

As one of the main sources cited in the book, it made slightly uncomfortable reading. I know I’m not the only source who has lamented that the authors did not come to us for a more detailed interview. In my case, aside from writing a single article which first appeared in Liberator magazine (pdf), I’ve actually written very little about the subject. This was deliberate, not out of a desire to keep things buried, but out of a need to move on from what ended up being a profoundly miserable nine months.

That one article will only give you a vague overview of my views about the campaign. I very deliberately kept discussion about my own role to a minimum and despite going over my word limit, I had to furiously cut it down to ensure that it didn’t take up the whole magazine. Reading the book however made me realise how a number of what I regard are serious misconceptions are well on their way to acquiring legendary status. So with the referendum now more than six months ago, perhaps it is time I made another attempt to give my side of the story.

The biggest problem I have with the book is its criticisms of what it calls the “movement delusion”. Much of the book’s overall thesis flows from this; in a nutshell the argument goes that Yes to Fairer Votes deliberately set itself up as an anti-political, non-partisan campaign which was inward looking, celebrity-obsessed and alienated its non-Lib Dem party political support. Furthermore, it is suggested that this is because the campaign was dominated by naive democracy campaign organisations and Liberal Democrats. There are elements of truth to all that, but the reality is more complicated.

Labour and the Yes campaign

The biggest thing which the book gets wrong, or at least fails to emphasise, is the degree to which the campaign involved Labour Party members in important positions. One of the most annoying statements for me was the claim that Lib Dem President Tim Farron’s admission the Lib Dems “were not in total control of the Yes campaign” amounted to an admission that “Yes was regarded as an arm’s length Lib Dem campaign rather than a real cross party effort.”

We can argue until the cows come home whether the campaign would have been better run if it had been by the Liberal Democrats, but the simple fact of the matter is that it was not. Leaving to one side Labour Yes itself, the following strategically key members of staff were Labour veterans:

  • Head of Communications: Paul Sinclair (former Gordon Brown Special Advisor)
  • Head of Ground Operations: Willie Sullivan (Labour councillor and Compass council member)
  • Full time consultant: Patrick Loughran (former Peter Mandelson Special Advisor)
  • Director and paid consultant: Neal Lawson

It is certainly true that the campaign was, overall, headed up by John Sharkey who chaired the 2010 Lib Dem general election campaign. However, even then the story is a bit more complicated. John Sharkey entered the scene having been anointed as the head of the Lib Dem Yes campaign by Nick Clegg. As the person in the initial cross-organisational discussions with, at least on paper, the most experience and best connections, he was seen as a strong choice to head up the campaign itself. What was to later emerge however was that his appointment was not supported by the Lib Dem Campaigns Department and that despite assuming he could be left to handle Lib Dem relations, Cowley Street often felt left out of the loop.

The party itself needs to explain how such a strategically important position came to be appointed without the fullest possible support within its own top team. Indeed, there are alarming parallels between this and the internal tug of war over tuition fees which lead to parliamentary candidates being lined up to sign the NUS anti-fees pledge despite Nick Clegg’s well known ambivalence to the policy and success in ensuring that it was not one of the party’s main headline manifesto commitments. The tuition fees debacle of course was to ultimately prove enormously damaging to the AV campaign.

Regardless of this, I can state for a fact that the Lib Dem campaigns department did not approve of the emphasis on phone banking and certainly did not approve of the decision to not do a full freepost mail shot. They made representations and were overruled. Their attempts to get campaign materials printed at the Yes campaign’s expense were frequently rejected (on some occasions, it has to be said, because the literature was actually quite weak). The only time I can remember the Lib Dem “camp” winning a decision was when they managed to persuade the campaign to include tear off slips at the bottom of a number of leaflets. This was in spite of the very vocal objections by the communications team (the objections became notably more muted when those tear off slips began to net us a quite significant amount of donations).

The emergency of the phone banking strategy was an interesting case in point. This was initially sold to us on the basis that we had experienced Labour campaigners in charge of it who were building on their success using the technique in the last few general elections. Many of us (but by no means all) initially suspended judgement on the plan precisely because it was outside of the Lib Dem comfort zone. I’m afraid to admit that I was one of those people. It was later to emerge that the experience had been vastly oversold, but by then it was too late. In this case, a bit more of an obstinate Lib Dem “not invented here” mentality would have come in quite useful.

I am not for one minute making the counter-claim that the campaign was an arms-length Labour operation. But Labour people were part of every single significant decision made by Yes and in many cases were the primary decision makers. The real questions therefore are: despite this why did we screw up our relations with the Labour Party quite so badly and how did we end up with the Labour people that we did?

I can answer the latter question a lot more easily than the former. Simply stated, the recruitment of the senior team was conducted during the summer of 2010 at the height of the Labour leadership election. With five candidates fiercely contesting the election, most Labour campaign veterans were working on one or other of those campaigns. Our options were therefore extremely limited.

In terms of why Labour relations were quite so poor, I can only give an etic account. It is my perception that the cultural and political divisions between southern middle class Labour and northern working class Labour are as profound as the divisions between most political parties and neither side has any real understanding of the other. Indeed, as a general rule, neither tribe even acknowledges the existence of the other.

Electoral reform has in recent years been seen as an issue of interest only to southern middle class Labour and both Labour and non-Labour electoral reformers have generally tended to exaggerate their importance because, as a rule, northern working class Labour doesn’t tend to get involved in the London-centric think tanks and ginger groups. Of course I’m oversimplifying and I’m sure Labour people can poke plenty of holes in this thesis, but for the purpose of analysing the Yes campaign’s failure it makes a lot more sense than the suggestion that Labour people were simply excluded from the campaign and ignored. In my view, the failure of Labour reformers themselves to engage Labour and trade union members not within their comfort zone is as significant a strategic failing for the ongoing campaign for electoral reform as anything else the referendum campaign has highlighted. And it isn’t really something that the rest of us can do much about.

Anti-politics

Linked to the failure to engage Labour is the tendency of the Yes campaign to indulge in anti-politics and rely on non-partisan spokespeople rather than senior politicians. It is fair that a number of the decisions were simply due to poor judgement. But at least some of it was due to the campaign making the best of a bad situation.

One of the criticisms of the campaign was that we did not make enough use of senior Labour supporters to be our spokespeople. I agree that this was a major failing. What I don’t accept however is that this is entirely due to the campaign, at least not initially. During the summer period when I was privy to the discussions being held at the top of the campaign, I know that numerous Labour politicians were being feted and we were constantly being turned down by them. The general message we were getting was that until the legislation was enacted, no senior Labour politician would publicly support the Yes campaign because they didn’t want to be seen to be somehow supporting the boundary changes by implication. This was of course not a disadvantage that the no campaign had to deal with, which is why they had no problem at all building up their internal Labour momentum.

The “people not politicians” communications strategy was thus initially due to circumstance not design. It was an attempt to obscure what was internally recognised to be a serious weakness. Jonathan Bartley became our key spokesperson because he was a non-Lib Dem who could perform well and had an interesting personal story, not because the people at the centre of the campaign really wanted to focus on non-politicians.

I can’t comment on internal discussions with Labour from October onwards and it is a moot point whether we could have made better use of people like Alan Johnson, John Denham et al once the law had been enacted. We certainly weren’t shy about using them by that stage. But we only got royal assent on 17 February, 10 weeks before polling day and by then we had had to bang the “people not politicians” drum for three months.

Further compounding the “anti-politician” perception was the decision to not use Conservative or UKIP spokespeople until the very last minute. In this case the decision was solely due to a concern that it would alienate Labour supporters. With few Labour figures prepared to publicly endorse the campaign, it would have been especially difficult to use Tories before royal assent. I can genuinely understand why using them during the campaign itself was a difficult and nuanced one, even though I personally sided with the pluralists who wanted to see us publicly embrace them.

What I don’t understand is why UKIP and Conservative relations were handled as poorly as they were. UKIP was barely cultivated at all. In the case of the Conservatives, a Conservative Yes campaign was formed predominantly out of Conservative Action on Electoral Reform, a group which has been in gradual decline since its peak in the 70s. Initially they were given tacit permission to get established and develop a campaign team. At the exact moment however when they, specifically John Strafford (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/mar/06/alternative-voting-row-campaign-sacking), started to get attacked by the No campaign, all support and even formal communication with them was ceased. The way they were left in the lurch resembled panic and personal cowardice far more than it did strategic thinking. It was an absolutely shameful episode and sadly not the only one when people at the top of the campaign lacked basic courtesy.

Finally, one of the things that I don’t think is fully appreciated is to what degree the campaign couldn’t make its mind up whether it was to be anti-politics or not. Time and again a viscerally anti-politics billboard or film would be mocked up, only for it to be blocked at the last minute. Nor was it non-party people commissioning this advertising; the non-party people were, by and large, kept well away from any such decisions.

A movement by default

That sense that decisions were being made on the fly and without any real sense of direction became awfully familiar to me during the campaign. And this is why I take issue with the idea that we were labouring under some kind of delusion about our status as some kind of popular uprising. It wasn’t a delusion, at least not as far as most of the people I worked closely with were concerned. It was all we were left with once all our other avenues had been eliminated.

Baston and Ritchie approvingly quote Angela Harbutt’s quip about “hard core fanatics waving around big pieces of fabric around the crack of dawn.” The video this references was filmed in Trafalgar Square on the day the referendum-enabling legislation received Royal Assent. At the time it was an awfully big deal for us because we had just gone through weeks of damaging speculation that the legislation would be passed too late for the referendum to take place in May 2011. That being the case, I would entirely defend the decision of the campaign to make a short one-minute video to provide its activist base with a bit of reassurance that we weren’t about to call the whole thing off.

That video does however highlight two major problems: yes, we did spend an awful lot of time getting our activists to wave banners around and yes, if you look at the campaign’s social media output, we did indeed appear overly focused on motivating our activist base at the expense of reaching out to the wider public. I think there is a danger however that in recognising we got the balance wrong that we conclude that activist engagement was not important. The real problem was not so much that we were doing such things but that so many other more productive approaches had been explicitly vetoed early on in the campaign.

The high visibility strategy which put so much emphasis on “fabric waving” activities was, to put it politely, not the first choice of most of the core ground operations team. It was borne out necessity for two reasons. Firstly, the emphasis on phone banking meant that the campaign had a perception problem; simply put, our plan was to put most of our activists behind closed doors making phone calls not out on the street. Secondly, a similarly disastrous decision had been made that the official campaign was at no point to spend any time or effort attempting to explain the Alternative Vote system.

The “don’t show, don’t tell” policy meant that, for example, we were specifically banned from encouraging local groups from running mock ballots on topical issues. The original plan by our local groups outreach team was to go out showing people how easy the system was to use by getting them to vote on things like who should win X-Factor or the Sports Personality of the Year. The anecdotal evidence we had received from local groups was that such activities had been highly successful; as well as a good tool to engage people on the street with it also meant you could follow it up with a local newspaper-friendly press release. This was ruled out by the top team purely on the basis of instinct. Shortly before polling day, the IPPR published a poll (ironically paid for by the Yes campaign) suggesting that people who had tried using AV were significantly more likely to support it. As Pyrrhic victories go, that was a particularly empty one.

If you aren’t allowed to show how the system works, and you are certainly not allowed to explain how the system works, all you are left with is slogans and photo opportunities. To this extent the book’s authors and many of the campaign’s other critics badly miss the point. Complain about slogans like “makes your MP work harder” all you like but the simple fact is that if you are prohibited from doing anything to justify what you say beyond the odd hackneyed soundbite, no slogan in existence would have sounded particularly compelling.

Killing the movement

Talk of the campaign labouring under a “movement delusion” also misses the point that in many crucial respects the operation was more centralised and micromanaged than any party campaign. I would argue that if anything the campaign was not movement-y enough.

The plan which developed over the summer was to roll out a major training programme to skill up our local activists and empower them to run autonomous campaigns as much as possible. This was based on what I personally felt was the realistic assumption that the ground campaign would only have a marginal effect. It was better to give local groups at least some degree of autonomy, despite the (small) risks that it entailed and preserve as much good will as possible for when it was needed (the short campaign) than to burn up that good will in activity which might on paper be more efficient but which treats people like robots.

All that changed when the phone banking strategy suddenly arrived from on high, seemingly on tablets of stone. There was always going to be a degree of phone banking in the campaign, but until late October it was assumed by many of us that it would be relatively small scale. Certainly the software we purchased to do it with was only really designed for volunteers to make 5-10 calls with in an evening from the comfort of their own homes; it was never intended to be used to run a full scale centralised phone banking operation with. Opinion differs in terms of to what degree we were missold this tool and to what degree we deluded ourselves; I was not involved in the contract negotiations so cannot comment on them. All I know is that it was made perfectly clear what the purpose and limitations of the tool were in the initial sales presentation and that if we really had intended to go down the route of organising mass-canvassing there were plenty of off-the-shelf packages available that would have done a far better job.

The initial training meeting of our regional organisers was a fairly stressful affair for all involved as it rapidly emerged that our organisers who had been recruited on the basis that they would be training and supporting local groups to work independently were actually going to be coordinating phonebanks. What could have been a productive winter in terms of capacity building ended up becoming a textbook exercise in how to kill off your own campaign’s momentum.

The web campaign

As the person nominally in charge of web and social media, I faced a similar problem to the ground operations team. When I was first given the job, I assumed that our web presence had to do two very distinct jobs. Firstly, and primarily, to motivate our activist base and give them something to do. The simple fact is that the vast majority of people who look at political websites have already made their minds up one way or another.

But the second job, of providing information and rebuttal was also important – not least of all because our activists needed it to support us. This was the aspect which the campaign top brass in its wisdom decided to not go near. If you don’t provide those tools however, and if you don’t focus your online campaigning on timely rebuttal, you don’t have much else you can do other than, what Baston and Ritchie call “whingeing”. That’s exactly what it was but once again this was the result of closing off our other options rather than making a clear strategic decision to go down that path.

It wasn’t that I disagreed with the observation that even the most simple explanations of AV risked causing confusion, merely that this was a problem we needed to solve rather than one we could afford to sidestep. I had assumed, naively, that the purpose of hiring a communications agency at great expense was to help with this. Instead the brief we gave them was effectively to become the most highly paid graffiti scrawlers in London and trash talk our opponents, only to loudly complain when they failed to come up with anything useable.

Convinced that we badly needed strong online content for the campaign, my only recourse was to beg volunteers to produce material and hope they would deliver. Even then I did it on the quiet; early on I had been officially banned from talking to any bloggers, a rule which was not rescinded until January, and I deduced that if I asked for a green light to approach independent creatives over whom we would have no control I would simply be turned down. One volunteer in particular, Barnaby Dawson, had set himself the task of building an AV Facebook app. I encouraged him to continue despite being told on numerous occasions that it would never be approved. In the end we released the app quietly under the Unlock Democracy banner.

What supporter generated content that emerged more than justified my faith. Indeed, the second official referendum broadcast was a remake of a video that Dan Snow had made with volunteers entirely off his own back. However, for the most part it arrived too late and with no advertising budget they could not be promoted adequately. The fact that the “reform cat” video ended up with more than four times the number of viewings that the most watched No campaign video, bolstered by a ceaseless advertising campaign, shows quite how much of a demand for factual information there was out there which we systematically failed to capitalise on.

We ended up in a scenario straight out of Alice in Wonderland. While our independent supporters set about producing relatively straight-laced informational videos, the official campaign spent thousands of pounds developing “edgy” so-called “virals”. Some of these short films were actually quite good but all of them failed miserably for three reasons. Firstly, top brass would repeatedly get cold feet over releasing videos despite commissioning them in the first place. Sometimes this was for good reasons, but the worry that Bob Dylan might sue us was perhaps the oddest and hard to counter argument I came across (if Bob Dylan ever decides to take on the whole of YouTube, passing up the royalty payments he receives in the process, he might well eventually come across this innocuous little film). We released most of it in the end, but a number were simply dribbled out half-heartedly weeks after they had been completed. Secondly, the official stamp of approval is the kiss of death for any genuine viral campaign. Thirdly, the campaign was not prepared to invest in internet advertising meaning that we were solely reliant on the dwindling reservoir of goodwill to give them an initial push.

In total, the campaign spent less than £5,000 on online advertising. £1,500 of that was to pay for advertising on a single website, Left Foot Forward. £3,000 was given to MessageSpace (the agency behind, erm, the no campaign’s social media operation), due to some obscure reindeer game which had something to do with winding up no supporters by putting banner ads highlighting the BNP’s support for a no vote on their favourite websites.

All other requests for advertising were turned down. In the end, by every possible metric, we still beat the no campaign in terms of social media despite the large sums they spent on advertising. I’m quite proud about that and I’m proud of the amount of money we ended up raising online, but I’m certain that if we had been given an advertising budget early enough it would have more than paid for itself and would have resulted in us gaining extra activists and supporters in the process.

Timing Redux

If anything therefore, many of the misconceptions in Don’t Take No For An Answer obscure a reality which was, if anything, even worse. Before I come across sounding too critical of the campaign however, I do feel that the very genuine dilemmas that the situation presented us with are all too frequently dismissed.

With the benefit of hindsight, the biggest single mistake of the campaign in my view was that we rushed into things when we should have taken our time. If we had relaxed over the summer and contented ourselves with not building a core team until after the Labour conference and leadership election, we could have picked from a much bigger talent pool. Campaigning could have still continued over the summer under the Take Back Parliament banner and we could have ensured that we had really explored every avenue before we committed to anything.

It’s easy to say that now however; at the time such an approach would have been highly controversial to say the least. Pretty much as soon as the referendum was announced, all the organisations involved were under daily pressure to start making real progress. Our advice from the people behind the successful 1997 Yes campaign in Scotland was that we needed a bare minimum of 12 months of coalition building and planning, time we palpably did not have.

There was also the fact that the democracy “sector” was in a bit of a state following the general election period. We had a real problem in terms of brand recognition and coordination. In addition to the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy, we had to contend with POWER2010, Take Back Parliament, Vote for a Change and Make Votes Count. Leaving aside the parties’ involvement, the “sector” desperately needed to consolidate this mess and coordinate itself and to do this under a different flag before switching again to Yes a few months later would have had questionable merit.

Finally, we were faced with a media that was quick to write us off. When the No campaign announced their core team in September, the media was falling over itself to claim that they had stolen the march on us when in fact they were operationally behind us at that stage. One thing our communications team deserve credit for is managing to convince the media that we weren’t dead in the water. Any further delay would have made that job far harder.

Despite all these factors, I still feel that key to our failure was our drive to get moving and I’m convinced that a completely different team would still have made remarkably similar mistakes given the circumstances. Of course, that being said, the real question is therefore why we ended up with a referendum on the topic that it was on, in that timescale, bundled up with those blasted boundary review proposals.

Return to Jenkins

Rightly, Baston and Ritchie begin their book with a brief overview of the history of electoral reform in the UK. It’s a fair summary but there is an omission that is all the more disappointing given the authors’ inside knowledge on the subject. Specifically, what the book does not explore at all is the fact that since the Jenkins Report was mothballed by the Blair government in 1998, an emerging consensus had been forming between electoral reformers in Whitehall around AV.

When I first started working for the New Politics Network in 2004 (NPN merged with Charter 88 to form Unlock Democracy in 2007), I was quite surprised at to what degree this was buzzing around within both Labour and Lib Dem circles. At Labour conferences, it was de rigour for reform inclined government ministers to make speeches in favour on AV on the fringe. We would receive almost monthly reports (from some admittedly eccentric circles) about how the government was going to announce its support for the policy any day now.

Inside the Lib Dems, I became aware of quite how keen some parliamentarians were about damping down party support for STV. When I sat on the party’s policy working group for democratic reform in 2006, I was once told that we couldn’t expect to introduce STV within a single parliament because the boundary changes would be so complicated, and would have to settle for AV at first. This was nonsense; even leaving aside the speed at which the current boundary changes are taking place, multi-member constituencies can be easily created simply by combining the existing single-member ones.

But perhaps the most tacit admission that the Lib Dems were geared up for compromising over AV was the party’s response to the expenses scandal in 2009. At a time when the mood for reform was at an all time high, Nick Clegg abandoned the party’s support for STV in favour of AV+ (indeed, given that this was a clear gesture of compromise, it makes Clegg’s later critical comments about AV being a “miserable little compromise” all the more inexplicable).

It was very clear that talks between Labour reformists and senior Lib Dems had been going on and that the groundwork for AV being introduced was being laid. Outside of Westminster however, the number of people privy to these talks were very limited indeed and while it appeared that ERS people and certainly the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform were involved, I’ve never personally been clear about to what extent this included the staff team.

The hush-hush nature of the talks was almost certainly a response to the fallout following the Jenkins report which ERS tore itself apart over in the late 90s and beyond. But one of the problems about this lack of frankness was that there seemed to be a lack of strategy. For example, back in 2004 there was clearly a lot of hope that Labour might introduce AV without a referendum and this continued despite a 2005 manifesto commitment not to introduce any change to the voting system without one. Yet this was almost inevitable given that the Lib Dems, ERS and Charter 88 had all been taking Labour to task for failing to hold a referendum on the Jenkins proposals. The divisions within ERS meant that while ERS appeared to be continuing to push for AV behind closed doors, the public position of the organisation became more critical of AV – which predictably became a problem once the referendum became a reality.

(If it reads as if I, as an Unlock Democracy employee, am playing organisational politics here I can assure you I’m not. I’ve been a member of ERS since 1996 – barring a brief resignation at the height of the MeadowcroftRussell wars – and have stood for council on three occasions. But the simple fact is that in terms of funding and history, ERS is the main player when it comes to electoral reform and its internal divisions have affected everything else).

By the time the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition talks began in May 2010, so much spadework had been done behind the scenes with Labour on AV that it is no surprise that it rapidly became the only real option. Those of us who had been pushing for an alternative plan such as a citizens assembly followed by a referendum were given short shrift.

In hindsight, the conditions attached to the referendum were such that it was almost certainly doomed to failure. But I would argue that if reformers had done a better job at uniting behind a single strategy before May 2010, we could have potentially got more out of the coalition talks and would have been better placed to fight the campaign when it happened.

That doesn’t necessarily mean picking a single system and running with it. Indeed, I think that has been the mistake we have made in the past as all it leads to is the sort of divisions and intrigue that we’ve seen over the past decade. For what its worth, I think that uniting around a process will have a far better chance of success.

Baston and Ritchie suggest that for a reform to have any chance of success, the Labour Party needs to feel that it owns it. I think that may well be true, but for the reasons I outlined above, I think the first step in that is for Labour reformers themselves to recognise the importance of moving outside of their comfort zones and start engaging with the side of the party which they generally tend to ignore. They need to tackle this phenomenon whereby the closer to the leadership Labour politicians become, the less inclined they are to champion electoral reform. I would certainly agree that the Lib Dems can’t be left to it but if no-one else will champion the cause we can’t be surprised or complain if they are the only ones that are seen doing it.

Ultimately though, I share Baston and Ritchie’s optimism. This year’s referendum has been an awful and painful but it has also served as a reality check we sorely lacked until this point. Meanwhile, the fundamental problems lying at the heart of the UK’s electoral system are not going anywhere. The biggest single factor that will decide when and if we get another chance at changing the voting system is how many hung parliaments we have over the next few years. Even if the Lib Dems are seriously crushed at the next election, the long term trend towards multi-party politics is likely to continue.

It is important to be ready for when the next opportunity arises, learn the lessons from this experience and ensure that cross-party and cross-organisational dialogue is kept alive and constructive.

In terms of learning the lessons, Don’t Take No For An Answer is a start but we have not yet seen the definitive account of what went wrong with the Yes campaign. Ultimately, I think that both Baston and Ritchie might have too much of an insider’s perspective to produce that account. I remain hopeful that a politics department somewhere decides to make this a special project and unleash an army of PhD students to investigate, or at the very least a journalist with a nose for a good story decides to have a go. Most of the comedy gold from the campaign has still not emerged if that is a selling point!

James Graham was the Web and Social Media Manager of Yes to Fairer Votes and is the Campaigns and Communications Manager of Unlock Democracy (and a member of the Lib Dem Federal Executive). He writes in a personal capacity.

The Steel Convention has no place in modern politics

I’ve had enough articles published in newspapers now to know that you can’t blame the author for the often shockingly misleading titles that appear above their articles, so I will give Lord Steel the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is not so disingenuous as to actually baldly state that “The Lords needs reforming now, not in 2025“. The article beneath the headline is a bit better. But only a bit.

Where does one start? Well first of all, if he is serious about his package of interim reforms, then the simple answer is to put them into the Lords reform bill and ensure it gets passed without delay. Yet for some bizarre reason he points this as an either or option: either we make some incredibly minor changes in the short term or we focus on reform for the long term. This is an entirely false distinction. What’s more, the Lords only started talking about these piecemeal reforms once they had realised that the electoral reformers weren’t going anywhere.

To offer dire warnings of the cost of an elected second chamber while demanding pensions and increased remuneration for unelected peers is a particularly audacious claim, but not the only one. Of equal status is the demand for an “independent” appointments commission. This commission would indeed be independent – of everyone – except for the House of Lords itself which would then exist in a state of permanent self-perpetuity. One of the main reasons for having elected members of the second chamber is to get away from the idea that the only people suitable are the usual clubbable suspects: here Steel is claiming we should take the status quo a step further.

It is remarkable to read a former member of the Scottish Parliament (which uses the Additional Member System) issuing non-specific yet dire warnings about what might happen if we have “elected senators (with a 15-year tenure as proposed), possibly of different political parties, wandering about their constituencies claiming, correctly, that they too have a mandate.” Strangely, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland somehow manage to struggle on in such circumstances – as indeed do parish, county and district councillors (not to mention MEPs).

The old canard about the House of Lords challenging the “primacy” of the House of Commons should also be put to rest. What on earth is wrong with a bit of competition? Is Steel really suggesting that it would be a bad thing if the Lords were seen to be doing a better job at representing people than the Commons? That we should stick with mediocrity because it might force MPs to raise their game? Linked to this is his deliberate obfuscation between the concepts of “powers” and “conventions”. The debate over what powers the second chamber should have has been settled: essentially it should have the same powers it has at the moment. And yes, the Cunningham Report did indeed say that a change in the Lords’ composition would mean that the conventions too would need to be rewritten, but those are two entirely different things.

The Parliament Acts limit what powers the Lords have in terms of delaying and rejecting legislation, but the Salisbury Convention has – until recently at any rate – held the Lords back from using those powers in full under normal circumstances. Will we need a new set of conventions if the second chamber were to be elected? Of course. But then, as I pointed out last week, with governments elected with 36% of the vote and now a coalition government, we urgently need to tear up the existing ones and start again in any case. This isn’t a problem that magically disappears if Lord Steel has his way and gets to kick elected second chamber proposals into the long grass.

To make things worse, Steel himself admits that the current Lords is pretty much a law unto itself. In the final paragraph, he makes the oblique threat that “the risk the coalition now faces is that its plans will get bogged down in endless argument in both houses, clogging up valuable parliamentary time.” Or, to put it another way: “nice legislative programme you’ve got there; it would be a shame if something was to happen to it…”

Perhaps he could tell us: what is the name of this “convention” that dictates that the Lords gets to derail a government’s legislative programme whenever its future is open to question? In what way is this form of blackmail in any way defensible? Perhaps we should name it the Steel Convention?

I could go on but really: why waste my time? This isn’t an intellectual argument being offered, but a threat. It will be a test of the coalition – and of the leader of the opposition – to see how they respond.

Crawling from the wreckage

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.

Electoral Mythbusting 2: spotlight on Labour and boundary changes

The proposal to hold a referendum on changing the electoral system to the Alternative Vote is Labour’s policy, so you would have thought they’d be delighted that the coalition government is going ahead with it, wouldn’t you? The problem is, a) Labour’s commitment to the policy is at least partly tactical (designed to appeal to Lib Dem voters – and Lib Dem MPs in the event of a hung parliament. Ironically, the effect was to make a Lib-Tory coalition more likely) and b) the Tories are insisting on implementing the policy alongside their own reforms of reducing the number of MPs by 10% and “equalising” constituency boundaries in order to remove a perceived bias in favour of the Labour Party. Labour politicians are up in arms at this and are threatening to bring down the whole bill.

To those of us outside the big two parties, this debate is somewhat baffling. They are throwing claims and counterclaims at each other regarding “gerrymandering” with seemingly no self-awareness at the fact that the current system (and even AV) gives both parties a tremendous inbuilt advantage that no other party enjoys. The sense of entitlement on both camps is eye-watering. But, that aside, can we legitimately accuse the Tory proposal as “gerrymandering”?

First of all, if you support single member constituencies, then you support in principle the idea that constituency boundaries should be drawn up in such a way that give different parties an advantage over another party. That is gerrymandering by another name. The reason for this is basic mathematics and gets to the heart of why no system which uses single member constituencies exclusively can be called proportional. It is best illustrated by what is known as the “gerrymander wheel“. The wheel shows how you can dramatically change the expected seat share each party gets simply by drawing the boundaries slightly differently. It is a problem with any electoral system with constituency boundaries, but the problem is greatly reduced even with two member constituencies with multi-member constituencies it rapidly becomes difficult to gerrymander.

But there is another factor, and this is something that both the Tories and Labour have got completely wrong. The fundamental problem the Tories have under FPTP is not the way the boundaries are drawn up but where their votes are. Simply put, Labour’s supporter base is spread across the country while the Tories tends to be concentrated in specific areas. This means that no matter how much you redraw the boundaries, Labour will still do better than the Tories nationwide while the Tories will always tend to have a concentration of safe seats (all things being equal).

The result is, any attempt to redraw the boundaries is unlikely to change very much, as two seperate academic studies have shown. So why is Labour getting so het up about it? Well, a factor is almost certainly the opposition party playing opposition games, but they do have one point: with millions of people not on the electoral register, some constituencies contain many more people than the election results suggest. This tends to be a particular problem in urban areas, which are typically more Labour than Tory. It is a problem that Labour had 13 years to sort out and refused to, so it would be nice if we heard a little more humility about it, but that isn’t the fault of the people affected, and I would agree that this should be taken into account.

What this can’t be used as however, is an excuse to not hold a boundary review, or an argument against equalisation. It certainly wasn’t during the two boundary reviews conducted under Labour and we certainly should not assume that those “missing” voters would all vote Labour given half a chance, no matter how great Labour’s capacity for self-delusion might be. With a census due to take place next year, this is in fact a good time to conduct a boundary review taking this fresh data into consideration. The Electoral Commission are already in the process of studying how complete and accurate registers are (pdf), and so long as the Boundary Commission are required to take this into consideration (in a transparent way), I can see no reason not to proceed at this point. The Electoral Reform Society have suggested that it might even be slightly beneficial to Labour; so be it. I suspect these details will all get thrashed out in committee in any case.

But there are two other objections to this agenda which are also being bandied about. One is that the combined effect of “reduction and equalise” will be to weaken the constituency link by ending the practice of having constituencies reflect local communities. The other is that reducing the number of MPs is itself undemocratic and bad for Parliament.

Superficially, there seems to be some truth to the first argument, which does make a bit of a nonsense out of the Tories’ claim to be the great defenders of the single member constituency link. How can you argue for that in principle, while reducing the degree to which constituencies reflect communities? And of course, I should include my own disclaimer that as far as I am concerned, anything that weakens the single member constituency link and results in MPs doing their job as legislators instead of their phoney job as social workers, is an entirely good thing. Bring it on.

But let’s not fool ourselves that the current system does a good job at reflecting communities; it doesn’t. That is due to three reasons: there is no fixed size for a “community”, the average constituency size doesn’t come close to reflecting the typical community and the concept of community itself is more mutable than it was, say, 100 years ago.

Here, for example are all the constituencies I have ever lived in:

  • Ravensbourne (Bromley), which incorportated the council wards of: Biggin Hill, Bromley Common & Keston, Darwin, Hayes, Martins Hill and Town, West Wickham North and West Wickham South. As a West Wickham resident, I considered my “area” to be West Wickham, Pickhurst, Hayes and Bromley. Biggin Hill might as well have been on the other side of the planet. I couldn’t even tell you where Martins Hill is.
  • Manchester Gorton (Manchester), which incorporated the council wards of: Fallowfield, Gorton North, Gorton South, Levenshulme, Longsight and Rusholme. As a student, I identified with the Oxford Road corridor, which incorporated much of Manchester Central. Much of Rusholme was, in fact, in Moss Side ward (Manchester Central). Much of Fallowfield was, in fact, in Withington (Manchester Withington). I very occasionally saw people in Levenshulme. Gorton was a completely different place, both ethnically and in terms of student population (I also lived in Central and Withington at various times, the same basic pattern applied).
  • Leeds Central (Leeds), which contained various wards in central Leeds, most of which had little in common other than that they were in Leeds itself. Leeds North West, where I was agent in 2001, was even more disparate. Shaped like an ice cream cone, it included the student-heavy Headingly at one end and the rural villages of Otley and Wharfedale at the other.
  • Warwick and Leamington (Warwickshire): To the extent that this constituencies contained two distinct communities, I suppose it counts. But even then, it wasn’t entirely cut and dried, as at the time it also included half of Kenilworth.
  • Hendon (Barnet), which currently includes Burnt Oak, Colindale, Edgware, Hale, Hendon, Mill Hill and West Hendon. Again, most of these places might as well not exist as far as I’m concerned. I live in Mill Hill and own a flat in Colindale. I’ve been to Edgware once in my life and Hendon not much more frequently. Finchley and Golders Green, where I lived shortly prior to now, was also two extremely distinct communities (if not more).

Looking at all these constituencies, a pattern quickly forms. The size of the constituency is such that as far as local identification is concerned they are neither fish nor fowl. You DO get identifiable communities at a council ward level, you can even make a case for a community at local authority level (although in both cases there will always be issues around boundaries), but constituencies are typically at such a size that they should be regarded, at best, as collections of multiple communties. Indeed, within London the boundaries have got even stranger since this election, with numberous constituencies crossing local authority boundaries (I am technically a member of Lewisham and Beckenham North Liberal Democrats for example, and Hampstead and Kilburn is an aggregate of Brent and Camden wards).

Reduction and equalisation won’t change that. The tighter equalisation rules might, around the edges, cause a few more odd boundaries through the middle of towns and villages, but for the vast majority of constituents, their constituency will be the same impersonal lump it was before the change. Equally, there will no doubt be some areas that become more coherent as a result of the boundary changes. One of the advantages of STV is that by creating larger multi-member constituencies, each one would conceivably represent a more meaningful piece of geography such as a county or a borough, but that is another matter.

Of course there is also the fact that people’s sense of place differs wildly depending on their lifestyle. As a public transport user for example, my bit of North London is effectively Mill Hill, Finchley and, to a lesser extent, Golders Green – i.e. the bits which I go to frequently because of my daily commute. I can’t even get to Hendon directly by bus or tube. If I used a car, I would no doubt have a different perspective. “My” Manchester involved both sides of Oxford Road, from the centre out to Fallowfield – but that was because I was a student. As we all become more mobile and more culturally diverse, talk of constituencies needing to represent distinct communities becomes increasingly bunk. So to get precious about the constituency sizes we have now is frankly silly.

The final objection is that reducing the number of MPs would be bad for democracy, yet the House of Commons is unusually large by international standards. ERS have included a comparative table here. The conclusion they invite the reader to draw is that the UK doesn’t have a particularly oversized Parliament after all, but I’m not convinced. After all, the statistics do indeed show that the UK House of Commons is large by global standards.

For starters, the assertion that only countries with federal systems should have smaller Parliaments is a little dubious. Certainly, countries with legislative chambers at a sub-national level have fewer things for their legislatures to do, but it doesn’t follow that you therefore need more bodies to do it. MPs all have to vote on the same number of laws, no matter how many MPs there happen to be. And while, conceivably, more MPs means more people who can share the load in terms of scrutiny, in practice it doesn’t work that way.

For example, the Commons Select Committees have just been reduced in size from 18 members down to 11. Far from being about reducing the amount of scrutiny, this is actually about ensuring there is more. In the past, each select committee effectively consisted of a hardcore and a group of malleable part timers who would contribute very little and were more susceptable to influence from whips. Smaller committees are generally regarded as better in terms of building a consensus and doing the hard work.

I don’t have statistics, and would love to see them, but I would guess that public bill committees tend to be dominated by a bunch of usual suspects. Similarly, you either have an MP who reads things like papers on statutory instruments, or you don’t. It isn’t the number of MPs, or even the number of laws particularly that is the issue here, but the culture in Parliament that seems to reward citizens advice over and above legislating.

Either way, a reduction of MP numbers by 10% is unlikely to have much impact. A bigger reduction might do, for the simple fact that we have such a large payroll vote with our current system of government. But 10% is unlikely to have that much of an impact, and we should be reducing the payroll vote (if not seperating the legislature from the executive altogether) in any case. Another useful thing would be to increase the amount of research staff each party is entitled to employ, which would arguably do a far better job at ensuring there is more scrutiny than a handful of extra MPs at £100,000+ a throw.

Ultimately then, neither the “reduction” or the “equalise” part of these reforms are likely to make much of a difference, either to the political breakdown in the House of Commons or the nature of MP’s roles. Reforming the voting system to AV may be a modest reform, but compared to either of these tiny steps it is revolutionary. They are certainly a price I have no problem paying in order to keep the Tories happy (although it looks as if some backbenchers are determined to scupper the referendum bill in any case). What I find baffling is why Labour are claiming that some kind of massive point of principle is under threat here, when for the most part they are just totemic changes. Watching both parties scrap in this debate looks remarkably similar to two bald men fighting over a comb.

Comment is freer: It’s AV or nothing

I wrote an article on Comment is Free yesterday about why people need to stop quibbling and start campaigning for AV.

Regardless of what might happen in five, 20 or 50 years time, at this precise moment you are faced with a choice between AV and the status quo. There can be no fence-sitters in the debate. I have to admit that initially I was quite uninspired by the prospect of fighting a referendum on such a modest, if meaningful, change. But two things have changed my mind…


Read it all here
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Electoral Mythbusting 1: Spotlight on Iain Dale

I guess we’ll be doing a lot of mythbusting over the next year or so, so I might as well start now.

Iain Dale has just issued a couple of posts about the Alternative Vote and Single Transferable Vote which contains assertions that simply can’t be sustained. Let’s go through them.

1. AV “is probably even less proportional than FPTP”

First of all, neither AV nor FPTP are proportional systems and the reason for introducing AV is not to make elections more proportional. Let’s by all means have that debate, but the referendum won’t be about that. So arguing which non-proportional system is more or less proportional is the world’s most pointless exercise.

We can of course talk about whether a particular election result would have been more or less proportional, but it is a pointless exercise as it involves making huge assumptions and in particular it assumes that the election is a one-off, not part of a series. So, for example, those famous bar charts that people moan about in elections are only used as an election tactic because under FPTP people have to rely on the past pattern of voting to decide how they might vote tactically – or whether to bother voting at all. Because tactical voting has become so common and that in some constituencies it has become ingrained (I am reminded of the various Cornish Labour supporters I’ve met over the years who take it for granted that they vote Lib Dem in general elections), we can’t really know how changing the voting system will change voting behaviour.

The example that is most frequently cited is 1997, in which it is generally believed that the anti-Tory swing would have had the effect of increasing the Labour majority at the expense of the Conservatives. That is probably true, but it wouldn’t have been if the 1992 election had been held using AV, in which case the pattern would have changed. And it is also the case that big swing elections like that happen less than once every general election. 2010 doesn’t compare and while the Labour and Tory seats may have changed slightly under AV this May, the main beneficiaries would have been the Lib Dems – thus it would have been slightly more proportional.

Australian AV elections are generally more proportional than UK FPTP ones but ultimately that’s irrelevant because AV is not a proportional voting system. The reason for introducing it is to give voters more choice and more competition within each constituency.

2. The winner in a FPTP election must get 50%+1 of the vote

Yes indeed, Iain Dale did indeed write that. Just for the record (I guess most politicos know this but a lot of others don’t): under FPTP you don’t need 50% of the vote or indeed any minimum number of votes. In Scottish four way marginals – and even in ones currently regarded as ‘safe’ – the winning threshold can be very low indeed.

The example Dale cites of the 1979 Scottish Parliament referendum where the threshold was set ridiculously high was one of the most undemocratic acts of thwarting the will of the people we’ve ever seen in the UK (thanks, Labour!).

3. STV “weakens the constituency link”

I’ve argued before that the single member constituency link is one of the most pernicious aspects of UK democracy, and stand by it. I’ve never heard a coherent defence of it – it just gets invoked by people as if it means something inherently profound (ironically, often by individuals like Iain Dale who are more than partial to a bit of carpetbagging themselves). But does STV, my preferred system, actually weaken the constituency link? The short answer is, it depends.

Ask any Irishman and they’ll tell you that it certainly doesn’t. Indeed, the effect of STV is to make politics in the Republic ultra-parochial. Iain Dale ought to talk to David Trimble if he doesn’t believe me.

That said, there is no question that making constituencies larger and having multiple MPs represent them will have some effect of dilution. The constituency link between MEPs and their regions is very weak indeed, although that link would be strengthened by replacing the current list system with STV. But no-one is seriously suggesting STV constituencies for the House of Commons with more than six members maximum. In Scottish local government, all constituencies have three members, although that is generally regarded as too inflexible. Personally, I don’t think it would be sensible for constituencies to, on average, be larger than four members (I would settle for three members on average, while recognising that it would not be especially proportional).

Furthermore, the flexibility of STV is such that ultralocalist candidates will still emerge if there is a genuine (as opposed for forced) demand for them. A candidate could campaign on a platform of wanting to represent a specific town within the constituency and still win, for example. It would be up to the voter to decide how localist they wanted their MPs, not the boundary commission.

There is also the question of political representation. Whether he thinks he does or not, my MP does not represent me. He is very unlikely to ever reflect my views in Parliament and he certainly can’t represent my views and my Tory neighbour’s at the same time. So where is my constituency link? By contrast, in a multi-member constituency I would have a much better chance of having my views represented.

And finally there is the matter of competition. Where STV is used, the effect is that elected representatives are under much greater pressure to champion local issues than they are under FPTP. The effect is that a local campaign will often find it has three champions in Parliament where under a different system it would only have one.

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves if the people of Manchester (for example) are better served by 4-5 MPs representing the city as a whole and coming from across the political spectrum, or carving the city up into 4-5 artificial constituencies. I think the former, but that isn’t a debate we will be having for the foreseeable future. And it is deeply ironic that one of the things the Tories are insisting upon at the moment is to redraw the constituency map so that MPs represent larger areas and that their constituencies are based on even more artificial boundaries. If they care so much about the constituency link, they should do the exact opposite.

4. The Jenkins proposal of AV+ is proportional

The Jenkins proposal included just a 17% top up of MPs elected proportionately. While that would mitigate the most extreme effects of using unproportional systems, its impact would be strictly limited. You could describe it as semi-proportional, but not proportional.

5. Under STV, the party has even more power and influence over candidate selection

This is the exact opposite of the truth. When it comes to candidate selection, there are two basic types of electoral system: there are ones in which the party chooses the candidates (however democratically) and there are ones in which the party chooses a shortlist of candidates from which the electorate chooses. Single Transferable Vote and open list systems do the latter. Closed list systems, of which first past the post is one, is in the former category.

It really is one of the most monstrous lies of the Tories to condemn proportional systems for using closed lists when that is a different issue to whether the system is proportional or not, and that they endorse closed lists themselves.

STV gives the party dramatically less control over candidates. Indeed, the candidates of each party effectively compete with one another, and that can cause tensions. That’s why people like John Prescott fought tooth and nail against it being introduced for the European Elections in 1998. That’s one of the reasons why politicians are wary of it in Ireland – and why the voters in Ireland like it so much. There is an issue that parties have the option of only fielding one candidate if they want to, but that is no worse than under first past the post, and it is more likely in small constituencies – which is what Iain Dale endorses.

We’re going to see a lot more of this forked tongue bufoonery over the coming months – especially since the debate on which electoral system we should use for the House of Lords will be sparking off soon. It is going to really try my patience.

EXPOSED: The Tories’ secret plan to prevent hung parliaments

Much has been made in the media this weekend of the Tories’ secret plan to increase VAT immediately after the election, if they win outright on Thursday. But it is becoming increasingly clear that they have another secret plan they aren’t telling anybody about: a plan to prevent future hung parliaments.

Right or wrong (and all the facts show they are dangerously wrong), one thing that the Tories have made perfectly clear in this election is that they are fundamentally opposed to having to share power with anyone. This of course makes a complete nonsense of the title of their manifesto (“an invitation to join the government of Britain” – have you noticed they are now emphasing not our place in government, but our status as mere contractors with government?), but that’s by the by.

Howver, there are two problems they have. The first one is the dirty little secret that WE ALREADY HAVE a hung parliament, and have had one for years. The House of Lords has been hung since the early noughties. Tory policy is now to “seek consensus” on creating a “substantially elected House of Lords” (presumably under their policy the appointed element will be to ensure the House has a single party majority but they are keeping conspicuously quiet about that) but since they are the only ones who disagree with the consensus that it should be elected using a proportional system, that won’t be achieved any time soon. It is well understood that if the Tories win an outright majority on Thursday, then Lords reform is dead as an issue for the next five years.

That leaves “Dave” with the power to appoint life peers on a whim, and the commitment to prevent hung parliaments. The current House of Lords has 704 members, 188 of whom are Tories. To form a majority and prevent a hung parliament, Cameron’s oft-repeated aim, he will need to appoint at least 300 Tories to the red leather benches.

Where will these 300 people come from? One can assume that a large tranche will be failed Commons candidates, meaning that even if you manage to vote down your local Tory candidate, they will be sitting in the legislature in a matter of weeks. We can also safely assume that they will come from the ranks of the businessmen and millionaires who have been bankrolling their campaign, including this delightful bunch of evangelical Christians.

This hasn’t come from nowhere. Back in October, the Times was openly speculating on the Tories appointing dozens of peers if they won the election before, presumably, such talk got stamped on by Andy Coulson and his close links with News International. But it is clear from the last few weeks that the Tories secret plan goes much, much further than even this.

But believe it or not, it actually gets worse. The biggest problem with the Tories’ war against hung parliaments is that with each election the chances of one forming increases as the country embraces multi-party politics. In 1951, 96.6% of voters supported one of the two main parties. In 2005, that figure was as low as 67.6%. The thing about FPTP is that if the vote share is evenly spread amongst 3 or 4 parties it ceases to return mostly single party majorities and starts becoming scarily random. Fundamentally, we remain stuck in hung parliament territory.

The Tories will be looking at Canada at the moment, which has had three hung parliaments in six years, and realising that even if that doesn’t happen here in 2010, we are heading in that direction. To prevent this, Cameron cannot rely on argument alone, he will have to change the system itself.

That means adopting a similar system to the ones they operate in those great bastions of economic and political stability Greece and Italy whereby the party which wins the largest share of the vote is given a bonus number of seats to ensure that it almost always wins an outright majority. Those bonus MPs would have no constituency and would be only answerable to the party itself. This is what is known as “strong government”.

Think this is fantasy? The Tory rhetoric over the past couple of weeks makes it clear that they will do everything in their power to prevent hung parliaments and having to share power with anyone. Therefore it is inevitable that they will have to adopt both these measures. While I am sure they will claim they have “no plans” to do either of these things, that is what they said about raising VAT.

Fundamentally, can you believe a word any of them say? We need to prevent all this by denying them a victory on Thursday. The polls this Sunday are quite consistent: while Lib Dem support is wavering slightly, we are still in a position to win the biggest share of the vote if the young people who have flocked to us over the last few days turn out rather than staying at home. They aren’t switching to either Labour or the Tories. So let’s get out there and enthuse them.