Tag Archives: referendum

Jack Monroe and “Hodge’s killer baby adverts”

One of the latest things to trend on Twitter is the hashtag #CameronMustGo and the celebrity chef Jack Monroe waded in with a series of tweets, the most notable one of which was “Because he uses stories about his dead son as misty-eyed rhetoric to legitimise selling our NHS to his friends #CameronMustGo”.

As is usually the case with Twitter, whatever you think of the original tweet the backlash has been far worse, with Ms Monroe reporting death threats, rape threats and, without irony, threats to her son.

The thing is though, she has a point. As far back as March 2012, Alex Andreou wrote a rather famous blog post titled “We Need to Talk About Ivan” which discussed this phenomenon in some detail. At this year’s party conference, David Cameron did it again, saying:

And for me, this is personal. I am someone who has relied on the NHS – whose family knows more than most how important it is…who knows what it’s like to go to hospital night after night with a child in your arms…knowing that when you get there, you have people who will care for that child and love that child like their own. How dare they suggest I would ever put that at risk for other people’s children?

I’m sorry, but arguing that because you had a sick child you should be able to shrug off scrutiny of how you, as Prime Minister, are treating the NHS is pretty repugnant. Calling him out on this is perfectly legitimate and the fact that doing so itself results in a huge storm of controversy, only demonstrates how this is not something David Cameron should be indulging in. I can’t think of any other politician who uses their children in quite this way; it is extraordinary.

What really got my goat last night however was the decision by Dan Hodges to wade into the debate. Mr Hodges has been undergoing a bit of a rehabilitation recently, having rather self consciously transformed himself from Blairite attack dog to tree hugging liberal. But for me, he’ll always be the man behind, to use his exact words “Hodge’s killer baby adverts” during the AV referendum.

no-to-av-maternity

If you ever doubted the degree to which this outrage about Jack Monroe’s tweet is manufactured, you only need to look at this picture. So please spare me the high moral tone.

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.

Yes to Fairer Votes: the briefing has started

This is an interesting quote:

Last night a senior source in the campaign for the alternative vote admitted they knew “very early on” that there was no chance of winning the referendum and that Clegg had become part of the problem: “Every time Clegg spoke about AV our polling numbers went into free-fall. We knew from very early on, before the new year, that we couldn’t win, our message wasn’t getting through and the Liberal Democrats in the whole were worse than useless. Clegg was toxic and everything [Chris] Huhne did in criticising the Tories just put the attention on the political spat – made it a Clegg versus Cameron affair. Utterly unwinnable.

“We even brought in an advertising man to save us. He came up with the idea of constructing a giant pin-striped bottom to take around the country for people to throw things at as a way of illustrating that AV makes MPs work harder. It was desperate stuff.”

I have a pretty good idea who this senior source is and it is nice to see that he (or, I suppose, her) is getting his (yeah, theoretically possible it may be a her) excuses in first, and it is certainly the case that Clegg was not helpful. But a couple of points:

1) The biggest poll dip was the weekend the No campaign freepost leaflet hit doormats. That certainly had Clegg on it, but by that stage Clegg himself was keeping a low profile.

2) Clegg was no less damaging than the continued string of high profile Labour politicians campaigning for a No vote. Why was Ed Miliband incapable of stemming that, thereby denting his own local government recovery in the process (by ensuring that the Tories received almost no scrutiny in the media for six weeks).

3) Yes, the idea of taking a “big butt” around the country was really stupid, but no-one ever seriously considered it. Instead of blaming our defeat on bad decisions which senior staff didn’t make, is it not possible that it was the decisions they did make that had a lot to be desired?

4) The admission that the individual concerned thought the campaign was unwinnable as long ago as before last year is shocking. If the individual concerned believed that then he (or she) should have resigned. If they are as senior as they claim to be, they were certainly coining it. Essentially, they’ve just admitted that they’ve spent the last six months coasting on a gravy train.

It would be so easy to blame it all on Clegg, but it won’t help us win next time.

Nick Clegg: I’m more hardline than Mao

Gavin Whenman has been expressing exasperation with Nick Clegg’s use of the word sclerotic. He has a point.

Personally, I find the following quote equally perplexing:

“It’s not an act of leadership to throw your hands in the air and let a thousand flowers bloom.”

Who was it who originally talked about letting a thousand flowers bloom? I believe it was a certain Mao Tse Tung. I don’t recall Mao being known for being a particularly weak leader. Why is Clegg inviting us to draw comparisons with him and the great despot? What’s this obsession with being seen to be tough (again)? And isn’t it generally Lib Dem policy to, wherever possible, let a thousand flowers bloom?

“Europe is not an issue of conscience. Europe is an issue that is quite central to our party’s identity.”

Yes, but even more central to our party’s identity is democracy. Regardless of whether you think the idea of a referendum on Lisbon is democratic or not, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the majority of the Parliamentary Party wanted us to support one. Surely therefore it was incumbant on Clegg to not vote on his conscience and go along with his colleagues? He had lost the argument. He was the one who insisted MPs not be forced to vote against their consciences.

I’m getting increasingly irritated by the ret-con claim that Clegg’s abstention was somehow “principled“. A principled stance would have involved him voting against the Tory amendment in the face of his parliamentary colleagues. I can understand the principled position of those like Andrew Duff who are opposed to any referendum, but not this claim that an in-out referendum is necessary while a referendum on Lisbon would be disastrous. In any case, a principled stance would have prevented him from writing this article four years ago. He knows this. How dare he attempt to claim some sort of moral high ground here?

Not impressed.

Ming Campbell abstained on his own policy

This has probably been blogged elsewhere, but looking at Public Whip today I was intrigued to note that the Lib Dems failed to get their own MPs out to vote in support of having a debate on the in/out amendment referendum. In a vote which was not likely to get passed and which the Lib Dems are surely planning to use against individual rival MPs, the Tories got 87% of their MPs out, Labour got 88% of their MPs out while the Lib Dems managed a mere 84%. Read into that what you will.

The absentees are an odd bunch. The most notable one is Ming Campbell. However badly Clegg may have subsequently handled it, let us not forget that it was Campbell that got us in this mess in the first place. It’s a shame he didn’t at least vote for his own policy.

Public Whip has not yet published the results of last nights vote. One of its quirks is that it defines a rebellion as a vote against what the majority within that particular party grouping was voting. On that basis, the 15 MPs who voted against the three line whip to abstain will be listed as loyalists.

UPDATE: Just had a look at the Tories who abstained in the in/out vote. They include, not exclusively, the usual Euronihilist suspects such as Bill Cash and Douglas Carswell. Clearly, for all their protestations, a significant number of them would have loved the opportunity to really put this to a vote.

Deconstructing the Lib Dem EU poll and other things to annoy the front bench

The Lib Dems have unveiled the results of a recently commissioned MORI Poll today with great flourish, insisting it confirms that their position for an in-out referendum is supported by twice as many people as a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

That’s fair enough, but there are two caveats. First of all, the questions are incredibly leading, being (in order):

  • Do you think there should be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, or not?
  • As you may know, the Lisbon Treaty, currently going through Parliament, makes changes to the way the European Union is run. If there were to be a referendum on Britain’s relationship with Europe, would you prefer it to be a referendum ONLY on the Lisbon Treaty, or a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union altogether?

On a subconscious level this translates as:

  • A referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU – what a good idea, eh?
  • A referendum on just the Lisbon Treaty? Poor show. A referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU – what a good idea, eh?

Secondly, what it suggests more than anything else is that the electorate hasn’t really been thinking very hard about this issue. 19% answered Don’t Know in Q1; 26% answered Don’t Know in Q2. 56% of people said they wanted an in/out referendum in Q1. 46% of people said they wanted either an in/out referendum or both an in/out and a Lisbon Treaty referendum in Q2. What happened to the other 10%? What this poll, more than anything else, tells us about the electorate is that it is all over the place on this issue. That shouldn’t be much comfort to anyone in this debate; no one is making an impact.

In fact the best thing I can say about this poll is that at least it is less desperate and contrived than IWAR’s silly “referendum” claiming that 88% of the public want one on Lisbon.

Back to the fall out over last week’s Ed Davey interview, I have to say I find it amusing to be accused of both “following the party line” and “going easy” on Davey and “tearing Ed Davey into pieces” at the same time. I happen to think neither is accurate: the first half of the interview was glowing with praise, the second half was critical but hardly ad hominem, but there you go. I do reject one criticism I’ve received which is that I shouldn’t have written it as it will be useful for William Hague to quote from in interventions this week. That ain’t my problem and the day it becomes my problem is the day I have to stop this blog.

In terms of the debate over the European Parliament’s role in appointing the President of the Commission, one other factor has come to my attention. A group of Europhiles have set up a new website calling for just one President of the EU. They are arguing that under Lisbon it would be both legal and desirable to combine the Council and Commission Presidents into one.

Personally I’m not convinced. The answer to the quoted question posed by Henry Kissinger “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” is surely Javier Solana. Combining two of the most senior posts in the EU into one without another treaty sounds dodgy as hell (“In general the provisions do not directly restrict the unification of the two posts. Only the new article 245 does not allow the Commission President to engage in any ‘other occupation’. But chairing a meeting of the European Council is not an occupation. We are confident that the legal services of the institutions and member states will be able to interpret this in the way they intend (as they so often do in other matters of political Kompetenzstreit).” – Davey’s description of a “bizarre interpretation” would seem rather more apt here IMHO!). And how would you hold the post to account? Could the office holder be sacked from one post while holding onto the other? What if the Council sacked him/her as their President but Parliament wanted him/her to stay at the Commission? I seem to spend my life calling for separation of powers; why would anyone want combination of powers? (another quote: “in the UK most ministers (=executive) are also members of parliament (=legislative). In Britain judges (=judiciary) can be members of parliament” – yeah and isn’t that a peachy system?)

But what this website does show is that far from giving the Parliament a more central role in electing the Commission President being a controversial “interpretation” of the Lisbon Treaty, many pro-Europeans have already moved on and are arguing to go much further. It is pointless to pretend otherwise and to insist that talking about it will only help the eurosceptics’ cause.

According to the website’s facebook group, that includes Jeremy Hargreaves, the Vice Chair of the Lib Dems’ Federal Policy Committee. Zany euro-fanatic though I may be, it is comforting to discover that there are zanier fanatics than me out there holding much more senior positions within the party!

Why Ed Davey is wrong about the Lisbon Treaty

Once again, I am indebted to Millennium Dome for organising another bloggers’ interview with a senior Lib Dem politician. This time we got to interview Ed Davey, at quite a topical time as it turns out.

Ed arrived about 40 minutes late, unavoidably so because Parliament had over-run due to a series of divisions as part of the Lisbon ratification debate. But he gave us a full hour; it has to be said that in some of the recent interviews we’ve done the interviewees have barely managed 30-40 mins. Given that Ed had promised his wife to get home early was greatly appreciated.

Foreign affairs is not something that Ed Davey has been particularly well known for since entering Parliament in 1997, the Bisher Al-Rawi case notwithstanding. What he is rather better known as is an able populist who has managed to marry an economist background with campaign priorities. Before becoming an MP, as the party’s senior economics adviser he was a key architect behind the party’s penny on income tax policy. More recently he was behind moves within the party to up the ante regarding our longstanding policy on local income tax. Say what you like about either policy, there is no question that both rapidly became core defining issues for the party.

So it is no surprise to find that on foreign affairs he is a) still learning on the job – he’s only been in the job for two months and states that his priorities have been the Lisbon treaty and his 13 week old son – and b) an arch-pragmatist. He had a tendency to talk in generalities rather than specifics. The two exceptions on this were the ongoing situation in Sri Lanka which he has taken an interest on behalf of his Tamil constituents and on international trade, unsurprisingly for an economist.

But on guiding principles he was much clearer. Challenged by Gavin Whenman to choose between justice and peace, he argued that there was always ultimately more justice in peace. He cited the example whereby MPs were asked to vote for amnesty for IRA “murderers” in the late 90s, something he did with a heavy heart.

Asked by Millennium about the implications a new US President will have on foreign policy, he was optimistic and urged people to be open-minded about the US. He cited how all the main presidential candidates had adopted a more multilateral stance compared with the incumbent and welcomed the fact that George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn – no doves they – had written a joint article last year calling for nuclear disarmament (pdf).

In response to a question by Linda Jack, he reserved the right to be cautious in his criticism of Israel. He suggested that we should be careful of being too overtly critical for fear of indirectly helping to make the situation worse. He urged a focus on human rights, although Linda was right to suggest that on that basis there was much to criticise Israel on. On a related note, he was critical of Stephen Spielberg’s decision to pull out and boycott the Bejing Olympics over China’s policy on Darfur, citing the position of human rights organisations such as Amnesty International that it is better to take part and raise such issues once the regime is in the full glare of the cameras during the games themselves. I agree and look forward to seeing the party produce a campaign pack on the issue for the summer.

So far so good; I was broadly happy with the answers he gave to the questions by the other bloggers. I wish I could say the same about the answers he gave to mine, but I can’t.

Outlining the strategy I spelled out yesterday on this blog, Ed’s response was to dismiss out of hand suggestions that Labour are in a vulnerable position and would therefore listen if we threatened to support the Tory amendment for a referendum on Lisbon. I defer to his better judgment. My response was that we therefore risk nothing by backing their amendment on the grounds that it would protest against their refusal to allow our own amendment to be debated. This was rejected as being too “opportunistic” and he cited the Lib Dems’ refusal to back the Labour and Bill Cash-led attempts to reject Maastricht in 1993.

I don’t see how this example is relevant given that we were very much in favour of Maastricht. Maastricht set a precedent in other ways too though in that we supported a referendum for it (one which we perhaps could have negotiated if we had threatened to back Labour). Davey’s response to that was that the Lisbon Treaty does not have a “constitutional nature” while Maastricht did and represented more significant changes. While I can agree that Maastricht was much more significant, this canard that Lisbon does not have a constitutional nature must be exposed. It directly affects the governance of the EU and thus the UK’s own autonomy; how can it not be constitutional in nature? For that matter both Amsterdam and Nice were constitutional – what were all those rows about voting weights about if they weren’t? If this is the justification, then we should have backed referendums for them too. The other line which Ed repeated was that this is a “minor” treaty alongside Nice and Amsterdam while Maastricht was “major”. I can’t see what criteria you can use to make that distinction objectively.

Most other EU member states of course have a simple way of dealing with this: either they hold referendums automatically as in the case of the Republic of Ireland, or they require super-majorities in their respective parliaments to ratify such treaties. Super-majorities generally require cross-party consensus to get through. France, Germany, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Finland and Sweden all require this; why not us? The fact that the Lib Dems in Parliament don’t argue for this either exposes them to the accusation that their position is down entirely to whether they think the treaty could survive such a process. Of course we could argue for the Swedish line that if a super-majority is not achieved the treaty must be passed on two separate occasions with a general election in between. Yet I’m not aware of us even arguing for that. If not these mechanisms, hard to introduce in lieu of a written constitution (although New Zealand has managed), then a referendum is surely the only tool at our disposal.

With all that in mind, and given the party’s reticence to push the issue, it is hard to dismiss the idea that the Lib Dem position is about anything other than expediency. Davey’s alternative to my plan is to push out clear messages on our position on Europe. Sadly though, whatever its intellectual merits (and I genuinely do agree that it has many), I don’t see any evidence that we are managing to get that point across. The bottom line is that we have opposed the best chance we have of holding a referendum on this issue; the argument over which referendum is best is a nuance that few people will care about on the doorstep. This will be used as a brickbat to beat us over the head with in Lib-Con marginal seats. It is ironic, as someone who has opposed Ed’s plans for local income tax in the past for being too populist and lacking in intellectual rigour to be in the reverse position here – begging for a clearer position that leaves us less exposed.

So much for ratification. My second question was on the contents of the Treaty itself. Lisbon grants the European Parliament extra powers, including a more definitive role in appointing the President of the Commission. I asked whether he thought this might in the long term lead to elections for the European Parliament centering on individuals that the various party groups might seek to introduce.

I’m afraid I found Ed’s response to this question extraordinary. He dismissed the suggestion out of hand, arguing that to say that giving the Parliament such powers is a “bizarre interpretation.” More than that, he suggested that if it did say that he would be opposed to it on the basis that it would play into the Euro-sceptics’ hands. And finally he argued that the President of the Commission is not like a “President” in the head of state sense and is merely one of three European Presidents which merely chair meetings.

On the first point, I can only refer him to the actual text of the treaty:

Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after appropriate consultations, the European Council, deciding by qualified majority, shall put to the European Parliament its proposed candidate for the Presidency of the Commission. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its members. If this candidate does not receive the required majority support, the European Council shall within one month put forward a new candidate, following the same procedure as before.

How is this open to interpretation? To be clear: the appointment of the President remains one of co-decision between the Council and Parliament, but if the elections to the Parliament are to be taken into account surely it is unarguable that this is intended to be an issue on which parties will be expected to have a public position on? The more votes a party gets in the election, the stronger its chances of getting its preferred candidate elected. Fundamentally, given that the Parliament will be making this decision in our name, what is so fundamentally wrong with MEPs actually telling us how they intend to vote? Longer term, what is so fundamentally wrong with making the process of choosing more open?

(I hasten to add that I happily accept that there are many practical problems with this, at least in the short term. It is hard to see how a candidate could enjoy pan-continental support given the cultural and linguistic challenges. But that’s not the same thing as saying that provision is not made for it in the Treaty and that it is wrong in principle.)

In terms of the President of the Commission being just another glorified chair, why is it that this is possibly the only European office that the general public has any awareness. Remember “up yours, Delors?” Power-wise, the President of the Commission has wide-ranging powers of appointment and sets the whole personality of the Commission:

2. Each Member State determined by the system of rotation shall establish a list of three persons, in which both genders shall be represented, whom it considers qualified to be a European Commissioner. By choosing one person from each of the proposed lists, the President elect shall select the thirteen European Commissioners for their competence, European commitment, and guaranteed independence. The President and the persons so nominated for membership of the College, including the future Union Minister for Foreign Affairs, as well as the persons nominated as non-voting Commissioners, shall be submitted collectively to a vote of approval by the European Parliament. The Commission’s term of office shall be five years.

3. The President of the Commission shall:

– lay down guidelines within which the Commission is to work;

– decide its internal organisation, ensuring that it acts consistently, efficiently and on a collegiate basis;

– appoint Vice-Presidents from among the members of the College.

A European Commissioner or Commissioner shall resign if the President so requests.

Formally, I would agree: compared to a Presidential head of state, the President of the Commission has very little hard power. But his or her soft power is immense and this is broadly recognised. Also unlike the Presidents of the Parliament and Council, the term of office for it lasts 5 years, not 2.5. The idea that Barroso is little more than an anonymous chairman is absurd. Frankly, there are plenty of examples of heads of state with less power and influence.

Why does all this matter? Because on the basis of his answers I’m not convinced that Ed Davey has read up on the Lisbon Treaty in the depth that I would expect a Shadow Foreign Secretary to. If he doesn’t accept that clauses exist in it that patently do, and furthermore claims that if they did they would be grounds for rejecting the thing, I would suggest that the rest of his argument begins to sound distinctly shaky.

The biggest problem with the Lib Dems’ current position on Lisbon is that it evades making the case for this treaty. Rather than attempting to do that, we insist that the only argument we can make is for EU membership as a whole, arguing for an in/out referendum in the clear expectation that our bluff will never be called. Ed is less aware of the contents of Lisbon than he should be because the official party line is to broadly side-step the whole debate over what it contains.

I’m genuinely torn. As readers of this blog will be aware, I have no love for the Euro-sceptics arguing for a referendum. Iwantareferendum.com is a dead duck; a dismal failure upon which millions of pounds of eccentrics’ money has been lavished. Yesterday they were out in force to lobby Parliament. They claim to have had 2-3 thousand protesters; the eye witness reports I had said it was closer to one thousand. Judge for yourself by looking at their own official photos (it looks like significantly less than a thousand to me). Either way, it was a damp squib.

So I think we will get away with this confused position as far as the general public are concerned, and the opinion polls at the moment back this up. But it is a position that seems singularly lacking in strategy, fails to understand that we get our message across through actions not words (something which Davey himself demonstrated on Tuesday) and most importantly treats the public with disdain. As a party with very few “safe” seats, we should be wary of how much trouble our opponents will make for us amongst swing voters.

Ultimately, we can’t keep dodging the European democratic deficit if we are serious about the UK’s continued membership of the EU. We have to draw a line in the sand somewhere, and be seen to be doing so. As a pragmatist and a populist I think that in his heart Davey understands this and would not have adopted our current position if he had not inherited it. I’m just disappointed he has not steered us towards a position that has greater resonance.

Will Clegg and Davey stick or twist?

Over on Lib Dem Voice, Jo has accused me of changing my tune. I disagree, but I will happily admit to allowing a glimmer of optimism cross my mind over the course of this evening as the events of Ed Davey’s protest and the subsequent Lib Dem Commons walkout begin to percolate through my mind.

Superficially, this doesn’t strike me as much more than a stunt. Flouncing out of the Commons only to meekly return to dutifully either back the government line or passively do so by abstaining (the result is the same) is not radicalism. It is empty posturing and attention seeking borne out of a desire to communicate a policy that public simply does not understand and has little sympathy for.

But it has occurred to me that it is just possible (I emphasise the word just – I’ve been disappointed before) that the Lib Dem front bench have actually realised quite what a strong position they are in and are pressing their advantage. If this storm in a teacup were allowed to escalate, and Nick Clegg quite clearly stated to Brown that he must either allow a vote on an in/out referendum to go ahead or the Lib Dems will back the Lisbon referendum, he could come out of this showered in glory. Either the government will capitulate and force the Tories to choose between joining Labour in the division lobby to vote against what would then be the only referendum on offer (indeed a referendum that a significant number of them would prefer anyway) or the government will hold its ground and risk losing the vote on the Lisbon referendum. Either way it amounts to a Lib Dem win (or at the very worst a score draw).

The speaker has upped the ante by rejecting this amendment (rather discourteous given Clegg’s obsequious endorsement of him yesterday). The Lib Dem front bench’s option is simple: raise the stakes or fold. For Clegg to do this he will need a brass neck several inches thick as it will make him the least popular MP in Westminster since Kennedy lead the Lib Dem opposition to the Iraq invasion. It would certainly silence my criticism of his handling of this issue and I suspect it a lot of others would be becalmed as well.

If this isn’t the game plan though, all the excitement that so many of my party colleagues are indulging is distinctly misplaced. The symbolism of Davey holding his ground will look completely empty in the cold light of day.