Friday, 29 July 2011

How to Fight for Electoral Reform.

In my previous articles I looked at the main reasons for the dramatic failure of the 'Yes' campaign for reform to the Alternative Vote in 2011 and then I suggested a better replacement for pure FPTP now AV has been so thoroughly electorally discredited.  That covers want went wrong before, and what we should try to achieve in the future.

So what's left?

Well, how we actually achieve that goal in the future, and make sure we don't just repeat the absolute thrashing of 2011.  What tactics and strategy should be used to finally achieve the dream of electoral reform?

I have become more and more convinced due to the election results in 2005 and 2010 that our electoral system is inefficient, unresponsive and broken, concentrates power in an arbitrary manner, and fails to respond to the plural reality of the modern world.  I also think that there is a relatively simple adjustment that can be made to it to bring it up to date, while still maintaining the vast majority of the tried and tested principles and structure that are such an ingrained part of our national and political culture, and have helped make Britain the longest lasting and most stable democracy in the world.

I am a conservative and a Conservative.  But a conservative is not opposed to all change, rather he supports measured change, considered change, evolutionary change, change that goes with the grain of human nature and most of all change that is necessary and possible without just making things worse.  I have come to believe that electoral reform, done properly is both necessary to make our democracy suitable for the 21st Century, and possible without losing what is best about our long-standing system. A conservative also knows the importance of practicality. Good intentions alone don't do anything unless you have the practical means of making them happen.  No-one can fault the devotion and patience of Electoral Reformers, but their tactics have been awful.  The 'Yes' campaign "was an epic clusterfuck of a campaign which will go down in the annals of political incompetence" in the words of one of its senior activists.  In fact a future campaign for reform couldn't go far wrong if it just did the exact opposite of everything done by the AV Yes campaign.

The 1st thing is to realise that a fundamental change of strategy and tactics are needed.  The cause of electoral reform has to be one of the most longstanding and least successful causes in UK political history.  The Electoral Reform Society, the UK's largest and oldest supporter of reform was founded in 1884.  It has been fighting the same battle totally unsuccessfully for 130 years.  Along with the Joseph Rowntree Trust it had a major role in the Yes campaign in 2010-11. These groups provided much needed money for the campaign. But beyond that though they imported a downright damaging mindset that profoundly handicapped the Yes campaign.

The skills needed to run a pressure group are very different to the skills needed to run a political campaign.  And the ERS is not even a particularly successful pressure group.  Pressure groups need to inspire a particular group of supporters and keep them involved.  National election campaigns need to rapidly build as a broad a coalition as possible and provide a clear and compelling narrative about why they are the choice that will most benefit people.  A pressure group must grab as much attention as possible in an public arena crowded with many other calls on people's attention, as well as simple apathy.  A referendum campaign has to win a binary choice.  It is Yes vs No.  Any future campaign for reform must move away from the ERS, pressure group model that has failed so comprehensively over many decades.

Electoral reformers shouldn't be thinking like an unsuccessful pressure group, they need to think like a political party. And also they need to appreciate the importance of political parties, and how they can be used to effect change.  The Yes to AV campaign had some idea about building an anti-politics campaign that would set itself against political parties and politics as usual.  This approach was rubbish. It straight and away alienated the very people most experienced and professional in political campaigning. and with power and influence in British political life. Like a political party they need to be able to appeal to as wide a range of people as possible from different ideological and political backgrounds and tie them together temporarily around a belief that electoral reform is a cause for them. It also needs to be ruthlessly practical in reaching out to people.

It must think about political parties in another sense as well. The facts are that our political life is overwhelmingly conducted through political parties, as much as they are also generally somewhat distrusted.  When people want cues about political decisions they don't look to celebrities or entertainers, they look to political figures, media commentators, etc, they trust.  These people set the tone of debate and commentary.  Politics in Britain is conducted on a shoe-string, but what resources there are, are overwhelmingly held by political parties as well, both in terms of money and also connections to the media, experience of campaigning, and standing nationwide networks for disseminating ideas and encouraging volunteers.

Political unbalance crippled the Yes2AV campaign. It deliberately sold itself as a left-wing, progressive cause and made deliberate attempts to even portray AV as an anti-Conservative measure.  At a stroke they successfully managed to alienate 43% of the electorate.  They also managed to alienate many more people who didn't want to support a political stitch-up designed to permanently exclude a particular party from government. It also allowed its media presence to be dominated by Liberal Democrats far too much.

This allowed the No campaign a completely clear run of right of centre voters and even motivated many to get out and vote against. This was absolutely fatal when the left-wing vote was also thoroughly split.  Any future campaign for electoral reform should put deliberate effort into pumping up a Conservative Yes campaign and UKIP Yes Campaign as much as possible, as well as among Lib Dem and Labour voters. The clear truth is that electoral reform will never happen without the support of many right-wing voters. (For a first hand account of how the Yes campaign deliberately ignored even the Conservative Yes organisation.  See here)

This is also important because any future chance for reform is most likely to come about due to action by a political party.  The 2011 referendum occurred because Gordon Brown opened a window in the Labour party, and the Lib Dems got themselves in a position to exploit it when a hung parliament occurred.  This means that a future opportunity for reform may occur as soon as 2015, and reformers should be working towards that eventuality.  The other thing is that an opportunity for reform will only most likely present itself if one of the two main parties opens itself up to reform.  As long as both parties are opposed to a referendum, then they can maintain a solid front against any attempt to negotiate for one. The best chance then is to persuade either Labour or the Conservatives to at least support a further referendum on electoral reform, though this may be too much of a long shot.  At best, it will require another hung parliament, with the Lib Dems in the driving seat.

This work should also be done starting years in advance, building a constant presence, however large or small, and seeking to influence the terms of debate through these crucial drivers of the political weather and discussion. Efforts should go into both lobbying and building support among the MP's, MEP's, Lords, Councillors who hold a vast amounts of power and influence among these parties and also persuading ordinary activists and members, as well as figures in the media and think tanks.  These are the politically active people in our country, and the best hope for reform success must involve getting as many of them as possible onside, regardless of their particular party affiliation. Also because they are among the few people interested in politics enough to listen to arguments about reform outside the context of an imminent referendum.

This is the uphill struggle the Yes campaign faces.  The Lib Dems and Minor Parties are already solidly behind reform, for obvious reasons.  Labour and Conservatives do very well out of the current system though.  This means roughly 65% of the electorate have very little incentive to support change.  One way that this can be countered is by stressing the dangers of FPTP to both sides as well as the way specific reforms such as AMS cohere with the principles they consider themselves to be proud of, such as fairness, while being aware how members of these parties conceive these values differently. Elements of these parties may support change to a more stable proportional system as an insurance rather than the more dramatic shifts of FPTP.   For the Conservatives the ghosts of 1997 and 2005 should raise a powerful argument against FPTP, as does the way FPTP continues to totally disenfranchise large right-wing minorities like UKIP  For Labour, the ease with which the Conservatives have dominated UK government over the last 130 years despite being a minority compared to the broad agreement along the left for much of that time, can only raise question marks against FPTP. Reformers can also appeal to Labour 'progressive' principles.  This attempt was one of the few successful parts of the AV yes campaign, that managed to build an, initially, impressive Labour Yes campaign out of almost no traditional Labour support for reform, although it was later lost in the general chaos and incompetence of the Yes campaign.

But support among political leaders and activists alone will not a referendum victory make.  It is obviously also extremely important to lodge the ideas of reform in the minds of the wider public.  The general public is even less interested in electoral reform that political activists though.  Because of this it may be wise, outside a referendum campaign, to concentrate on discrediting FPTP in the eyes of the wider public rather than actively promoting an alternate system. Support for an actual separate voting system is worth building among a wide range of poltical activists and parties as far in advance as possible, but among the general public this is almost certainly impossible, requiring too much detail.  However, even if reformers could just manage to lodge in the public consciousness a couple of ideas about how FPTP is an unfair, broken system it would build a much stronger platform to persuade them of an alternative in any future referendum campaign, which would hopefully have some support from activists and political groups across the political spectrum ready to go for any campaign.    

The crucial feature is to make electoral reform relevant to people.  In the jargon of campaigning it needs to be 'Retailed'.  That means instead of presenting people with an abstract argument and cause break it down into simple examples of issues people actually care about, both of how the old system is broken and of how the alternative (which for me would preferably be AMS) would be better.  This is what the No campaign successfully managed to do with its arguments about the cost and complexity of AV, and what the Yes campaign singly failed to do.  And again it is something that should be done years in advance.  FPTP has the massive advantage of incumbency.  A Yes campaign for reform needs to take a clear two part message.  Firstly, demonstrating why FPTP is broken, and then explaining how AMS will solve this problem. It is not just enough though to take reform, and take something people like, and tell them the two are connected.  There has to be a plausible and simple logical connection between the two such that their mind's will naturally slide between the two, even for someone not paying that much attention.

Again this was one of Yes' main failure in 2011.  Messages about the expenses scandals and ending seats for life look superficially clear and resonant with a cynical electorate but they failed the connection test.  The Yes campaign never explained (because there was no obvious link) how AV was meant to achieve these miracles and so they made little progress with the electorate.  On the other hand the No campaign's arguments plausibly, clearly and simply connected to AV and so were more successful at sticking in the electorate's minds.

The third crucial feature is to work with the general conservative bent of the public.  If it was not obvious before the massive AV No vote, the public is reflexively conservative about constitutional change, especially any one they don't easily understand the rationale and argument for.  A Yes campaign for Reform should seek to work with this rather than against it.  Stress should be put on how reform actually strengthens the familiar principles and arguments used in favour of our electoral system.  Obviously this won't be possible with all such traditional 'principles' but where possible it should be tried, to counter the unfamiliarity proposed in any change. An example would be that AMS would actually increase representation by electing Labour MP's where enough people vote Labour or Conservative MP's where there are Conservatives or etc.  Rather than giving large numbers of voters no representation on arbitrary geographical grounds.

The next point is not to do your opponents work for them.  This is largely a tactical point to consider during the election campaign.  The side that wins will be the side that more clearly gets their message to the electorate.  Relentlessly push the clear positive advantages of change, relentlessly slag off FPTP.  Every single message should follow a clear formula, FPTP bad because X, PR better because Y. Do not spend valuable time arguing about the minutia of your opponents claims. Don't waste time discussing their arguments to the point where it crowds out the points you are trying to make, especially when media coverage is scarce and the public's attention distracted.  All a No campaign has to do is generate enough reasonable doubt in the public's mind. A Yes campaign has to not do what their opponents would want them to do, which is to get bogged down in precisely the manner the Yes campaign for AV did. I can only repeat the ridiculousness of the latter stages of the AV campaign.  The NO campaign wanted to portray AV as an expensive Lib Dem fix, so the Yes campaign treated them to the ridiculous spectacle of a chorus of leading Lib Dems talking about nothing apart from how much AV would cost. A text-book example of what not to do.    

Be aware of what your opponents will do.  Any future Yes campaign has the advantage of the experience of the AV campaign, and especially the reaction of the No campaign.  Under any future referendum, for AMS for example, it is likely that very similar No arguments will be used.  Other obvious arguments against a semi-PR system can be anticipated. The argument about Cost, possibly about complexity, about there being more hung parliaments, etc.  A Yes campaign should already have pre-prepared and tested plans and responses to the main likely arguments, ways of countering them and re-directing the debate back to the areas a Yes arguments want to hold it on.  They know what didn't work for the Yes campaign in 2011, and hence what to do differently, both in terms of debate and in terms of messages in the future. Generally speaking a No campaign will try to make the argument about anything rather than the issue of the actual features of FPTP vs AMS (or another alternative) because they know that FPTP just doesn't stand up under scrutiny. Yes campaigners must do whatever they can to shut down other issues and direct any debate back to the failures of FPTP and the advantages of AMS (or another alternative).  That is their winning ground.

The final point is a positive one.  The circumstances will be better.  The circumstances in 2011 were almost uniquely bad for Reformers.  It is highly likely that a future referendum will take place in more favourable political weather.  This is certainly not a reason for complacency, but it is a reason for hope.  This is doubly true if Reformers do learn the lessons of 2010-11 and make sure they are better prepared and better planned for any future referendum.  With a combination of a broad political coalition and a clear set of anti-FPTP, pro-AMS reform lines to take there is every reason to hope that we will see Electoral Reform in this country within the next decade.


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