Wednesday 25 May 2011

How could Electoral Reform Fail so Badly?

It's not very controversial to say that the result of the AV referendum on was disastrous for the cause of Electoral Reform in the UK.  Almost everyone was surprised by the scale of AV's defeat and this has been followed by an immediate consensus that electoral reform is off the political table for at least a decade, if not a generation. For reformers, after 80 years of campaigning and finally getting the referendum they had dreamt and hoped for reform is now, cruelly, even further away than before.

This would seem an odd time then to talk about the future of electoral reform.  But in reality now immediately after its big defeat is precisely the time that supporters of Reform needs to take stock, think clearly about what has happened and plan for the future. And there is no such thing as a perfect certainty when it comes to politics and the future. With boldness and a serious willingness to really reconsider both means and aims anything is possible.

First it is important to face up to the reality of what happened, what went so wrong, and what must be learnt from 2011 to make sure next time is extremely different.  So this is what I try to do in this article.  In my next article I set out what I believe to be a better option for achievable electoral reform than AV, and then argue how we can apply the lessons outlined here to give the best chance to achieve that success as soon as possible, however long that may be.  

Just a quick note.  If at any point I make rude comments about electoral reformers, I mean the core of leaders of pro-reform organisations, politicians, media commentators and the rest of the small group of people who frame and direct the public image and fight for electoral reform, rather than supporters of electoral reform generally, of whom I am one.

So what happened?  And what went so wrong?

2 weeks ago the UK held its first ever referendum on the subject of electoral reform.  This represented the 2nd closest Britain has ever got to ditching First-Past-The-Post as its electoral system.  The 1st being when a switch to AV and STV was narrowly rejected by parliament after a lot of argument and numerous votes in the 1920's.  The particular chance of electoral reform on offer was of course the Alternative Vote.  This was rejected by 68%-32% on a 42% turnout, or in other words by 13 million votes to 6 million.  It is hard to over-estimate the scale of the thrashing.  AV lost in every region of the UK and in 430 out of 440 counting regions.  Equally telling is the fact that in the tiny number of areas AV did pass in it squeaked through with around 55% of the vote, only gaining more than 60% in a single London Borough.  In contrast it was defeated by margins of 70-30% in literally hundreds of areas.  Most UK regions did even contain a single voting area that supported AV.

Personally I was broadly neutral on the question of AV or not. I remain massively unconvinced that AV would offer a significant improvement on the current system in terms of results or the problems of FPTP. Neither do I think its introduction would have been the end of the world. AV could be summarised as a system that is slightly better than FPTP in some areas and slightly worse in others. At best it would solve 10% of our problems, at worst it would occasionally make them slightly worse.  That said, in one sense it is a deep shame that AV was defeated so badly, because it discourages the thought of considering further ideas for reform, and gives the resemblance of a mandate for the current pure FPTP system, something that system does not deserve. 

In a weird way though I'm glad AV was destroyed so badly. I'm glad because the result was decisive, thus forcing the defeated party to admit clear and straight defeat. The worst of all possible worlds would have been a close result on a low turnout, whether for Yes or No.  Such a result would have only fuelled bad feeling about any change or lack of it and damaged the credibility of the result. It would have led to an orgy of blame with the losing side looking for any chance to excuse their defeat by blaming a technicality or their opponents misdeeds. The sheer scale of the result luckily means that the defeated side was left with no option but to give way gracefully(ish).  

The second silver lining, from my point of view, is that even when Electoral Reform does come back onto the political agenda it is highly unlikely that pure AV will be the alternative option.  This is good because I don't think AV is significantly better than pure FPTP for Britain, nor solves the problems that pure FPTP brings.  It is a step sideways, the illusion of reform without actually solving the serious issues with the current system. I think it was said best by a journalist, raging against the progressive majority's failure to vote through AV, who complained that FPTP was a "broken, majoritarian voting system that disenfranchises millions of voters and puts power in the hands of a hundred thousand or so "swing" voters in "Middle England" marginal seats". To which his solution was to introduce a broken, majoritarian voting system that disenfranchises millions of voters and puts power in the hands of a hundred thousand or so "swing" voters in "Middle England" marginal seats. Right.  

My general lack of interest in the Alternative Vote to one side, I think Electoral reformers made a big mistake in their approach to the referendum that has the capacity to seriously damage the hope of reform over the next years if not understood and overcome.  Starting on entirely pragmatic grounds I think that whoever was running the YES campaign owes supporters of reform an apology, for monumentally cocking up the 1st decent chance for reform in 80 years.

The scale of AV's defeat means it may have been impossible for the best campaign in the world to have won for a YES vote.  The circumstances were very adverse, but they certainly could have done a lot more with them and given the cause of reform a much stronger platform from here on. Now it is really easy to be wise with hindsight and blame the Yes campaign after it lost but there's more going on here than that. There have been numerous serious explanations about just how bad the Yes campaign was, most damningly by senior members of the national Yes campaign who felt unable to speak up before the vote itself, and feel crushed by how their efforts were thrown away.  (For example, here, here, here and particularly here.)  Even from miles away I can rattle off the top of my head 4 things the Yes campaign were obviously doing wrong.

Firstly, running a cosy, smug, left-wing campaign by Guardian readers for Guardian readers. The Yes2AV campaign made almost no effort to reach out to right-wingers, running a campaign opened by Ed Miliband, Caroline Lucas, and involving almost no attempt at political balance. This was an astonishing failure. Especially when they had an ace in the hole in the form of UKIP and its charismatic front man Nigel Farage.  They could have used these to devastating affect to counter the solid Conservative No campaign among right-of-centre voters.  They didn't almost certainly out of the liberal-left's general distaste for UKIP. They'd rather run a campaign by 'progressives' for 'progressives' and lose. Particularly remarkable was the comparison with the relative role given to the Green's Caroline Lucas, despite the fact that UKIP gets about 3 times as many votes as the Greens. The Yes campaign's seeming approach could be summed up by a short conversation I had with a friend. I said the Yes campaign was cocking up by failing to engage right-wingers. He said why should they bother when right-wingers were a minority and would just vote No anyway. My jaw dropped.

In fairness he was technically right on one thing. Identifiably right-of-centre parties gained 43% of the vote in the last election, which leads me to my 2nd point. If the Yes campaign were going to be so stunningly complacent as to write off almost half of voters they needed to make absolutely sure they had the other half locked down so tight they could hardly breathe. This again they failed to do. Right from the start it was clear to anyone with half a brain that Labour voters would be crucial to securing or defeating AV.  They were the vital swing voters. Especially if the Yes campaign was planning to not bother with right-of-centre voters they needed to make damn sure they secured the support of the vast majority of Labour supporters. 

One way to do this would be to make the referendum a vote on David Cameron, they barely mentioned him. The other way would have been to make sure they had almost all Labour MP's, CLP's and other senior figures on board.  Again, they failed.  They almost went out of their way to antagonise Labour MP's with their main message, which, bizarrely, was that MP's were lazy and corrupt and AV would make them work harder and be more honest. This understandably didn't fire up Labour MP's, Lords, Councillors and other party figures to throw their weight behind the Yes campaign.  Once it became apparent that NO2AV had secured a considerable chunk of Labour support (let alone a majority of Labour MP's), combined with the Yes campaign's wilful neglect of right-wing voters, it was obvious they were going to lose.

The 3rd bizarre error was failing to reach out to as many voters as possible.  Beyond their choice in problem 1, they failed to utilise the opportunities they have available to them.  They and the NO campaign were both offered one free mailing to every house in the UK. The No campaign eagerly took the opportunity, producing a slick and compelling leaflet. The Yes campaign decided to just not bother. The No campaign launched one of the biggest political ad campaigns in UK history, with billboards around the country and vast quantities of online advertising. Yes2AV barely bothered. Yes2AV did manage to produce a TV political broadcast.  It was absolutely bizarre. It contained voters going around harassing MP's through megaphones, who were portrayed as lazy, corrupt caricatures. It barely mentioned any real positives of AV, only vague nonsense about AV making MP's work harder with no back-up explanation and claiming it would have avoided expense abuses.  It failed to make a genuine case for AV, it failed to make any case as to why FPTP was broken. It assumed voters were idiots. It may as well have promised them that AV would make diamonds rain from the sky.        

The 4th failure was doing their opponents work for them.  The Yes campaign spent far too little time genuinely making a case and clearly pushing the positive improvements of AV, or the glaring problems with FPTP.  They spent far more time trying to rebut their opponents case and thus cemented it in the public's mind.  It failed to pick a single message and stick to it, apart from the nonsensical line taken in their broadcast.  The No campaign, on the other hand, desperately wanted to make people think that AV was expensive so the Yes campaign spent huge amounts of time arguing the toss over how expensive it was.  The electorate, seeing the debate through a thick fog of apathy and other concerns, just heard that AV was expensive.  The No campaign wanted to make it a referendum on Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems in general.  So the Yes campaign obligingly filled the latter stages of the campaign with Lib Dem Cabinet ministers complaining about how mean the No campaign was, and to cap it off Ed Miliband publicly refused to share a platform with Nick Clegg. Thus making sure everyone knew the yes campaign thought Nick Clegg was important. Brilliantly done. These failures combined with the genuinely difficult circumstances the referendum was held in meant AV was doomed, and visibly so.

Apart from these pragmatic issues I think that electoral reformers made a serious strategic error in their more long term approach.  The vast majority of reformers did not want AV before the referendum was called. For what I believe are very good reasons. In fact numerous individuals and organisations had been downright scathing about it. As soon as the referendum was called though most of them moved as one to pushing AV and doubling back on their previous opinions. In of itself I don't blame them for this. AV was all that was on offer.  But that was precisely the problem.  The electoral reform movement is built on an extreme point of principle, whereas AV was the result of some pretty seedy political bargaining. In particular Gordon Brown's death bed conversion to reform in 2010, in a late attempt to cosy up to the Lib Dems, all while holding out the one type of electoral reform that could possibly actually INCREASE Labour's already bloated electoral advantage.  Pro-AV campaigners were caught between a rock and a hard place.  Support AV too strongly and they just looked hypocritical, given their recorded objections to it.  Damning it with faint praise was also not really an option, as that would just help speed it to defeat.  Faced with this choice they went with the 1st option and just looked like hypocrites. There was a 3rd option though.

This 3rd option was No2AV, Yes2PR, which tried to reconcile the difficult choice facing reformers from a different direction.  Arguably No2AV, Yes2PR fails the golden rule for political messaging: Simplicity.  But simplicity is only one half of the rule.  The other is clarity.  And in terms of clarity No2AV, Yes2PR, from people who had always supported PR, was miles ahead of the seeming hypocrisy of criticising AV right up until the point where you start trying to sell it to the electorate as a solution to everything from political corruption to skin disease.

In the long term the Yes2AV campaign also took a particular approach that will make a future campaign for PR that much harder to win.  Core Yes2AV arguments repeated ad nauseam by major pro-reform figures could be used just as well as arguments against PR. Yes campaigners made a huge amount of arguing that MP's should have support of a majority of their constituents. PR in multi-member constituencies works on precisely the opposite basis. Yes campaigners spent ages arguing that safe seats were the work of Satan, and trumpeting AV's relatively trivial reduction in their number. PR would institutionalise safe seats in vaster numbers than we currently enjoy/suffer. In any campaign for any PR-related system it will be trivial for the anti-reform side to pull out the recordings and quote of people and organisations making these arguments from this campaign and play them against the same people making presumably the opposite arguments in favour of PR.  At which point they will look like double-dealing, hypocritical, duplicitous weasels, and their case will be even weaker.

But was No2AV, Yes2PR ever really an option?  I have spoken to many people who think not.  The plan of Yes2AV then Yes2PR seemed to be secure AV, and once it had been demonstrated change is possible, then shift over again to some form of PR, presumably STV.  Would this have really happened though?  Having gone through all the efforts of securing AV, there would certainly have been no further change for a few elections, to give AV a chance to bed in. That's 10-15 years at least.  Even then, the above problem I outlined applies whether AV passed or not. Certainly the electorate would consider the job done and the subject closed for years to come. More crucially, though Ed Miliband and part of Labour could just about support AV there is no constituency in the Labour party for PR in any form.  Because despite all the guff about a 'progressive majority' Labour knows it needs a majoritarian voting system to govern on a minority of the votes, in reality even more than the Conservatives do. Having achieved AV Labour would have no incentive to support further change, and without the support of one of the two major UK parties it would just never happen. Yes2AV then Yes2PR supporters would have been Ed Miliband and Nick Cleggs's useful idiots and nothing more.

But doesn't the opposite apply even more so? Doesn't it follow that a No vote to AV dooms electoral reform even further? And thus it was worth throwing the reform movement behind AV?  I believe the answer is No.  Or at least could have been No but for the poor choices of many reformers.  Firstly, as I said, a Yes vote would effectively shut down any further move for reform for at least a few elections, to give AV a chance.  That's 10-15 years at least.  Which is oddly roughly the same time period that a No vote has now shut down any further chance of reform for.  Assuming AV is not actually your preferred endpoint then a No or Yes vote was actually rather irrelevant to the possible time-table for further change. Also whereas with FPTP intact there is a small constituency in Labour for some change with AV introduced there would be almost none, reducing even further the support for more reform, whereas now the current discontent within Labour can be leveraged into further support for different efforts at reform. The fact is that regardless of a Yes or No vote the situation in parliament and country will still be the same.  Lib Dems will support PR, and Conservatives and Labour will oppose it.  That overwhelming arithmetic is true regardless of whether we have AV or FPTP, and whether the referendum delivered a Yes or No vote. I think there is no strong argument that either a No or Yes vote should logically increase the probability of further reform happening more quickly.  

Furthermore, AV is without doubt an arbitrary majoritarian system where vote share bears no direct relation to share of seats.  Pure AV has far more in common with FPTP in terms of outcomes than it does with any proportional system.  On face value and by all logical criterion a vote for AV is a vote for AV, and a vote against it is a vote against it, nothing less and nothing more.  But here is the point where pro-AV'ers cry, "But conservative anti-reformers will/have take/n the chance to declare a No vote a vote against reform in general".  Well, no shit.  Of course they will. That's their job, they do what it says on the tin. Anti-reformers, not being idiots, as has been conclusively shown, will take any chance to discredit reform and lock down the debate. They would cry exactly the same whether a No or Yes vote.  A Yes vote would be a mandate for AV, meaning there is no need for further reform they would have cried. A No vote is a vote against all reform and for the current system they now cry, even though anyone with two brain cells can see that doesn't at all logically follow and certainly wasn't on the ballot paper.

The good question is not why are anti-reformers trying their best to oppose reform given whatever circumstances that occur. But why, just like in the referendum, are pro-reformers eagerly parroting their illogical lines as vigorously as possible?  It is truly mind-boggling.  It is the first and simplest rule in the book that you do not repeat your opponents' message for them.  Especially if they are superficially convincing. You certainly don't run around out and out confirming them to the deep detriment of your own cause. If anti-reformers claim a vote against AV to be a vote against reform, the correct answer is, quite simply, "No it isn't".  This response, "No, it isn't", has the benefit of being clear, simple, true and blindingly obvious to anyone who takes two seconds to actually think about it honestly.  The total myth that a vote against AV is an out-and-out mandate for the current system and a vote against any other reform is the most thorough block to any further hopes for reform in the foreseeable future imaginable.  So why, oh why, are reformers some of the loudest people repeating this nonsense to all and sundry who would possibly listen?  

They resemble a child having a tantrum throwing its toys out of the pram.  One can almost see them folding their arms crossly and pouting at the electorate.  Quite frankly though this approach fits with the general head-in-the-clouds attitude of too much of the Yes campaign. For too many of its leaders and supportive commentators it's not about working practically to effect change for the better in our country, it's about how wonderful, enlightened and progressive they are and how their genius will lead a grateful and progressive majority into the promised liberal land and now we've rejected their offer we're all doomed forever.

This silly response to the defeat of AV has the risk of turning a defeat into a disaster.  But it is and was entirely avoidable.  The reform movement could have taken an entirely different stance.  Instead of mortgaging the future of Electoral Reform to the campaign for AV (and then doing it really badly), thus risking the current fall-out in a defeat that was always likely to happen, and for which there is no evidence that even a yes vote would have hurried any actual change to a PR-based system, they could have taken a principled stand against AV and FPTP.  They could have let Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband and all the other greasy politicians fight it out over AV and put their muscle behind a principled No2AV, Yes2PR campaign.  Such a campaign could have used the golden opportunity of the referendum, with the biggest media focus on the subject of electoral reform ever, not to suicidally line up behind a voting system they didn't even want but rather to use the opportunity to build awareness about a PR system and why they think a PR-based system is both superior and distinct to both AV and FPTP.

This would actually have increased awareness about PR, rather than burying all thought of it under a vast AV vs FPTP bunfight.  It would have made a NO2AV victory even more inevitable, but it could have raised a profile such that it was seen as a joint victory of supporters of PR and FPTP, rather than a victory of FPTP'ers against all reform.  By sharing in this victory PR supporters would then have both raised awareness about PR and created a situation where they could sell a narrative that a No vote reflected a vote for PR as much as a vote for FPTP and hence move the debate onto a discussion about the merits of FPTP vs PR systems, rather than having a situation where a No vote on AV can be used to tar all electoral reform with the same brush.  It could have left a platform for a second attempt at reform in the next parliament from a position of strength, as a separate debate between a majoritarian system and a proportional one, rather than the sterile debate we have seen recently between two majoritarian systems, and with the credibility of reformers intact.  Admittedly this would still be a long shot, but I do not believe on any scenario it could have produced a worse result in the long term than either that we have experienced, or any one that was likely given the circumstances. 

That finishes my argument about what went wrong.  For the lessons I would draw from this, the shorthand version is just the opposite of the errors I have criticised here.  The longer version I will explain in my next article on the Future of Reform. As well as what I believe is a better model for achievable reform and the strategy the electoral reform movement must take to see this achieved as soon as possible, offering both a superior alternative to both FPTP and AV and valuable lessons for any future campaign from the AV debacle of 2011.  


Pierre said...

Hmmm. So you're assuming that the supporters of AV were in fact supporters of PR?

I think that that point, in particular, was the downfall of the Yes2AV Campaign. The fact that it became muddled up with PR arguments. The No camp have rightly pointed out (I seem to recall, in Question Time) that AV was actually further away from PR than FPTP.
Hence the sense behind No2AV, Yes2PR.

The argument Yes2AV, Yes2PR was always feeble - it was pretty much "if we reform once, we can keep on reforming" - making the first reform pretty pointless really, especially if it went in the opposite direction.

However, there were some people in the Yes2AV, No2PR camp. I was certainly one of them. As far as I'm concerned, both PR and FPTP cement parties into politics. Preferential systems are the only way out of that, and give power back to the constituencies (following the EU principle of subsidiarity, as an aside).

Yes, the campaign was a complete shambles. On both sides (frankly, the argument that AV does not respect "one person one vote", though efficient, was an outright lie, as most of what was dished out by the FPTP spin doctors). I wish the Dan Snow video (second broadcast) or the lolcatz videos had gotten more attention.

With regards to the high-cloud thinking argument, I see your point. AV would've led to minor changes in terms of national representation, but would also have made MPs more locally accountable. While it would potentially have led to little change about the nitty-gritty of eeveryday governance of the country; it would have changed the dynamics of politics from a centrally-defined (by parties) to a locally-defined accountability. And that's a huge step forward for democracy in my book.

Stephen Wigmore said...

The fact it became muddled up with PR arguments was because 90% of the muscle and money behind the campaign was really Pro-PR money and muscle (and probably manpower) that decided any chance for reform was better than none.

I'm glad you agree with me that Yes2AV, Yes2PR was always feeble. It seemed far more like wishful thinking to excuse the fact you've betrayed your principles than something anyone had actually thought through.

I really don't see how AV would shift accountability from parties to candidates. True, it means that individuals from the same ideological background could run without splitting the vote, but I really don't see how that will be enough to remove parties from politics. Australia and Ireland, two of the only countries to embrace pure preferential systems, are just as party-bound and dominated as the UK, though I will admit they have a slightly higher rate of independents getting elected.

Political parties have their problems but realistically as a form of branding and centralisation they are essential for accountability of governments and even candidates.

Also, I really think AV would have damaged local accountability more than helped. The direct connection between a vote for x and x getting elected is important. The preferential switching and swapping of votes could only have reduced this connection. Admittedly under AV this is not so bad. But under STV it is genuinely confusing. I would challenge anyone to look at the recent Irish election results and tell me which votes actually lead to which candidates getting elected.

My preferred system, AMS, could actually improve local accountability by separating the concepts of a vote for a party and an individual that both AV and FPTP merge. It also preserves the direct simplicity of the connection that a vote for x is a vote for x, rather than the complexity of a preferential system.

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