Saturday, 7 May 2011

What now for electoral reform?

The AV result has been a huge blow. There is no doubt that the British public, rightly or wrongly, have rejected AV.

So where do we go from here?

Well, first of all there's the post-mortem. A major blow to our chances of victory was David Cameron deciding to throw the entire weight of the tory party's powerful electoral and fundraising machine behind the No campaign. The decision of the No campaign to engage in deceitful campaigning of the worst kind didn't help either.

However, the biggest problem we faced was the central Yes campaign itself. This campaign started out as a grassroots movement and it should have continued as such. Instead, the central campaign ran an establishment campaign, failed to get the key messages across, failed to organise and failed to listen to the people on the ground who knew best. Rupert Read has a good piece explaining some of the key problems with the Yes campaign but here are some examples.
  1. The initial failure to provide a way for spontaneously formed local groups to contact the central campaign.
  2. The failure to connect everyone on the mailing lists with their local groups.
  3. The obsessive focus on the phonebanking.
  4. The failure to find a way to put on leaflets decent message or a simple way to explain AV and the subsequent result that several Yes campaigners (myself included) ended up designing our own leaflets. 
  5. The failure to properly organise media relations with the result that poorly briefed politicians became the faces of the Yes campaign.
  6. The failure to listen to the grassroots when we warned them that their message wasn't working - well, I say that, but they did finally listen to us at the start of the last week with the result that we finally got a decent campaign broadcast. 
  7. The failure to successfully attack the failures of FPTP. 
  8. The failure to provide the grassroots with necessary support - for example, we originally asked repeatedly for a Yes march to be organised in London for the last month. This was ignored with the result that an unofficial flashmob was organised to take place in Trafalgar Square - if they Yes campaign had simply sent an email about it out to everyone then we'd have had huge numbers attend. Instead they decided to back it only the evening before it took place with the result that the media turned up to what was now an official event only to find that a few dozen people were there as most activists had received the news too late for them to be able to attend.
  9. The failure to use the free mailshot. It was obvious that we would not have the resources or time to deliver to every home by hand and yet the campaign failed to save the money needed to finance something that would have given us a chance to speak directly to everyone in the country.
  10. But, above all, the failure to make use of our energetic and motivated base by running a grassroots campaign. Instead the Yes campaign ran a traditional, top-down campaign and it is this failure, more than anything else, that led to our defeat.
However, the media should not be allowed to wriggle off the hook on this. They failed utterly in this referendum. They failed to properly explain the referendum to the public and they behaved in an unforgivable fashion by merely repeating the claims of each side instead of conducting a proper analysis of the facts of the matter. Antony Green showed how this should have been done in his excellent analysis blog. By failing to do so the media let the electorate down by denying them the resources to make an informed decision.

This failure by the media, coupled by the failure of the Yes campaign is what led to the loss of the referendum.

So what next? Well, there are already rumours that Cameron intends to block Lords reform. We former Yes campaigners should make pushing for these reforms to go ahead our immediate priority. The introduction of a democratically elected Lords using a form of PR would achieve two things.

Firstly it would finally fix the immensely undemocratic situation where unelected peers can frustrate the will of a democratically elected Commons. Secondly, it would allow people in England to become used to a form of PR. PR is a fundamentally sensible and fair system and the familiarity of constant use would let the electorate see this, making the ultimate goal of a proportionally elected commons that much easier to reach. This is why it is essential that Lords reform does go through. This is why it must be our first priority.

After that we can begin the fight for PR for the Commons. The bottom line is this:

The public have rejected AV but they have not rejected PR. The problem with AV was that it was a compromise - and compromises are vulnerable to attack by people from both sides of the debate. Instead we will have to work towards pure PR or nothing. Already some people are trying to spin the referendum result as an endorsement of FPTP - it isn't. If it was then why did I encounter so many people who said that they would vote for PR but not AV? Why else did No2AV sponsor No2AV-Yes2PR?

This battle is not over, not by a long shot. Every major reform in British history has been defeated in its original form. We need to have the patience, determination, skill and drive to ensure that AV becomes just a minor defeat in a much bigger war which we win.

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