I am writing this just before 9am the morning after the AV referendum ballot. As of yet the result has not been announced. Polls just before the start of voting showed a very strong lead for the No camp. It is still possible Yes could win, after all we don't often have referenda in this country and polling is not an exact science. However on balance it is looking quite likely that No will win the day.
Friday, 6 May 2011
I expect that as a strong Yes supporter I will be accused by some regarding what I am about to write of sour grapes. However I hope most will take it in the spirit in which it is intended which is an attempt to look at the consequences of the way this referendum campaign was run for future referenda. And I am afraid it is not looking good.
Politicians often bend the truth during election campaigns. It is in the nature of the game. However it is very unusual for them to outright lie about things. Partly because there is always the chance that something like what happened to Phil Woolas last year can happen if they can be shown to have knowingly lied about an opponent. There is an ultimate body to answer to. Partly because most politicians know they will be facing the electorate again in a few years time and if they have lied there is always the chance they will be called on this and exposed which could damage their credibility and chance of re-election.
Neither of those sanctions exist for referendum campaigns in this country. The Advertising Standards Agency do not police referendum campaign advertising. And the Electoral Commission do not rule on referendum campaigns either. This was made clear during the campaign. That effectively means that as far as I can tell, both sides in a referendum campaign can pretty much say what they like and it is up to the other side to rebut these claims.
That is what we have seen happen in the last few months. Neither side has covered itself in glory. I am very, very disappointed with the Yes campaign. I have largely kept my powder dry during the campaign as I did not see the point in saying anything publicly when we were still trying to win but it has struck me as unfocused and completely failing in what should have been its primary function which was to educate people about how the AV system works and what it would mean for people's votes. Instead they have been distracted by adverts making out all MPs to be venal and endless "petitions" to the BBC about semantics, the No campaign about its donors etc. which nobody outside of the campaigns would have been interested in at all. Masses of wasted time and energy. The Yes campaign is also guilty of bending the truth in a number of respects and also not being clear enough in its messaging. The message about MPs getting "50% of the vote" should have been clarified from the start. Something like a rider saying "of those preferences remaining in the final round" would have stopped the No camp from being able to portray this as untrue. Basic, basic stuff surely? There are other things about the Yes camp too which I will likely blog about in the aftermath.
But against this, the No campaign is the worst and most deceitful campaign it has ever been my misfortune to witness at close quarters. There are two of the main planks of the No campaign that are by any yardstick I can think of, out and out lies.
The first is the claim that AV would cost £250 million. This was made up (literally) of the £80 million already spent on the referendum which would be spent whichever way people voted, £130 million for electronic counting machines that simply will not be needed and the rest on voter education and other expenses. The whys and wherefores of these figures have been debated endlessly and I for one am sick to the back teeth of even talking about them any more. Fact check after fact check from various sources (including HM Treasury) have made it clear that there is absolutely no need for counting machines. The vote counting process is relatively straightforward and even for several rounds of redistribution will only take a few more hours of manual counting. The only cost that moving to AV would incur is some voter education (a few million at most) and a little bit more overtime for counting staff in some polling stations. Perhaps £20 million at absolute most. So I repeat, the £250 million figure is a lie. And yesterday, David Blunkett, one of the leading lights of the No campaign admitted as much in a unguarded moment. He stated that it was made up and seemed to try and excuse this by dint of the fact that this was a campaign. Alas his candour was likely much too late to make a difference to many people's votes despite attempts by Yes supporters to virally promote his admission on Twitter and other social networks.
The other main element of the No campaign that is untrue is the claim that voters get multiple votes if they choose candidates that drop out. Of all the claims, this is the one I am most sick of arguing with people. So I will just say it once here. In every round, everyone who has expressed a preference that is still attached to a remaining candidate will still have their ballot counted. Everyone. Including those who vote for the eventual winning and runner-up candidate. This claim seems to rely on the fact that it takes maybe 30 seconds or a minute to explain how the counting process works and as long as they shout "KEEP ONE PERSON ONE VOTE" loudly enough, people will believe that some voters get more than one vote. Sadly, it looks like as a tactic it has worked.
But there is no point now in complaining about the behaviour of the No and Yes camps. They ceased to exist as of 10pm yesterday.
And that is my broader point. There is no accountability for what either side did. Some have suggested to me that the result will count as the verdict on the campaign but can that really be true when such distortions and downright lies have been bandied about from the Prime Minister and Chancellor down? How can we be confident that they way people have voted is based on a fair and balanced assessment of the merits or otherwise of sticking with FPTP vs switching to AV?
The truth is we cannot. This is why I am now questioning whether referenda in the UK has any future. What we saw happen during the AV campaign is all the worst elements of our political system (spin, distortions, soundbites as substitute for actual debate) writ large with no accountability.
There are some very important questions that may need to be decided in the UK in the next few years. Scotland may be asked if it wants to be independent from the UK. We may want to decide whether to join the Euro or more likely leave the EU. After the only referendum campaign in my political lifetime has been executed in such a dreadful manner, irrespective of the result, I cannot see how we can go through this sort of thing over and over again on such important questions and consider any result to have real legitimacy.
I don't know what the answer is. I can see there are big problems in trying to make sure referendum campaigns are regulated but surely to God we have to do something to make sure we don't go through another campaign like the one we have just had to endure?