Now that the AV referendum has been lost, those of us who supported the change are licking our wounds and wondering when the next opportunity for electoral change for the Commons may present itself.
At the moment it is looking like a long way off. However I think in the aftermath of the failed AV bid it is worth having a look at what those of us in favour of electoral reform can learn from this campaign to be borne in mind in the future, whenever the next opportunity may present itself.
The system I and most other Liberal Democrats (and more generally most in favour of electoral reform) favour is Single Transferable Vote. It is much more proportional than FPTP (or AV) but importantly it is similar to AV in that you rank candidates in order of preference. The big difference being that more than one MP is elected for each larger constituency (between 3 and 6 is optimal).
Having witnessed at close quarters the tactics used by the No2AV campaign I think we are in a position to at least have a stab at predicting what the outline of a No2STV campaign may look like further down the line. I think this will be a useful exercise in order to ensure that those campaigning for a Yes vote are ready to handle the sort of things that are likely to be thrown at us.
Here are variations on five campaigning messages that I expect we would face:
1) "It's too expensive". This was one of the No2AV campaign's most pushed lines certainly in the early days. Having spoken to people it would seem that this message was resonating. The claim that AV would cost £250 million was bunkum. But it worked this time so you can expect it will be tried again. And of course next time it is likely to be harder to rebut as we already know that counting machines are used for some STV elections. I would suggest that the response to this has to be firmly and consistently on the basis of principle. Moving to STV may cost a little more but what price democracy? I have made the point previously that moving to the universal franchise (twice as many ballot papers to print, issue and count) was more expensive but nobody seriously argues now that women should not have the vote. I have found when trying to make this point that I have faced scorn for appearing to try and conflate votes for women with electoral reform but I maintain it is a fair comparison because to argue it is too expensive to change the electoral system is a diversion and this highlights it. A Yes2STV campaign would definitely need to get on the front foot regarding this message from the off.
2) "It's too complicated". Again, this is a message that was used to apparently good effect against AV. And let's be honest, if AV is considered too complicated then STV could arguably be even more so. Even though I certainly think most people can grasp the concept of what is going on in both cases, a big failure of the Yes2AV campaign was in educating people about how it works. Instead of the first referendum broadcast featuring people shouting at "MPs" using megaphones they would have been much better off explaining how AV actually works (there was none in that broadcast) and highlighting a small number of key reasons why it is better than FPTP. Similarly for STV it will be vital that the system is concisely explained as often as possible and with key messages as to why this is better. With STV I actually think the second part of this will be easier because there is a very clear message regarding fairness with the proportionality factor.
3) "It will help the BNP". Or substitute BNP for whatever extreme party (or parties) exist at the point of the campaign. It proved remarkably difficult to shake this accusation against AV during the recent campaign. This was particularly surprising to me because the BNP was actually in favour of keeping FPTP. However the No campaign rather deftly managed to sow confusion by discussing how lower preferences from those voting BNP as their first preference could end up "deciding elections". I am not going to deconstruct the counter arguments here, it has been done elsewhere many times (best example I have seen is here in this excellent post by mathematician Tim Gowers which incidentally rebuts pretty much all the No2AV campaign's claims) but I will make the point that if the No2AV campaign was able to make this message stick when the BNP are against the change themselves, then I think we can have a pretty good guess at how hard they will push this message when the BNP are likely to be for the change. And I would imagine moving to a more proportional system, even STV would be something that extremist parties like the BNP would be in favour of. I actually think it would be pretty hard for parties like the BNP to get any MPs under STV because it is preferential and therefore makes it very hard for parties that are actively strongly disliked by most people. However having seen what happened during the AV campaign I would expect this message to be drowned out as it relies on a fairly detailed understanding of the underlying counting process for STV. What I would suggest for this message right from the off is that it needs to be rebutted with the argument that the way to beat parties like the BNP is not to rig the electoral system against them. All that does is make them look like martyrs. Instead the way is to beat them by arguing against their extreme and unworkable policies. There are other arguments that can be deployed here too but I think the one of principle is the one that is on strongest ground and should fit in with other campaign messages well too.
4) "Under STV, candidates that come first can end up losing". This was another effective message from No2AV. Of course it all depends on what your definition of "coming first" is. No2AV was relying on the number of votes after one round of counting which is what we are all used to under FPTP. Because under STV there would be multiple seats up for grabs it would be a little different. But I can certainly imagine them trying to argue that STV is "unfair" because a candidate that is way behind when first preferences are taken into account could still eventually end up getting a seat. I expect because the move would be to multi-member constituencies that the change is quite wide reaching and therefore a direct comparison with FPTP is harder. But I am certain No2STV will find a way, and probably quite an effective way of portraying this as unfair. It would be tempting for Yes2STV to try and rebut this claim with technical details but I think instead the "fairness" mantle has to be seized immediately by Yes regarding the proportionality argument. Once people understand that the proportion of MPs elected will be much closer to the number of votes cast, any claim about fairness regarding second, third and so on preferences would hopefully have much less potency.
5) "It will lead to weak and unstable government.". The Yes2AV campaign expended quite a lot of energy trying to claim that coalitions and hung parliaments were no more likely under AV than FPTP. This was a very defensive approach and they may well have been better off trying to argue in favour of coalitions in principle rather than the rather muddled messages that ended up coming across. At least a Yes2STV campaign would have little choice but to argue from the off in favour of coalitions as STV is certainly much more likely than FPTP to produce them. Indeed that is precisely why most campaigners for reform want it!
This is obviously just a very first pass by someone who is admittedly biased but followed the campaign from both sides with great interest. I was disappointed by both AV campaigns as I have blogged about in detail previously. But I still think it is worth thinking ahead whilst the wounds the Yes campaign are licking are still very fresh! I expect others will have their own ideas and I have almost certainly missed some important lessons here. One that springs to mind instantly is the "multiple votes" argument. But I am very tired of rebutting that particular one and let's face it, we have a lot of time to learn all of the lessons!
In conclusion, in some ways STV will be easier to argue for than AV. It has some advantages over FPTP (from a reformer's perspective) that are probably easier to sell than AV. Its proportionality is whatever your view certainly a clear change, rather than the rather mixed change in this respect that AV would have given. However the counting process is harder to explain than AV and that is the area in which I expect No2STV would try to make the most capital (I plan to come back to this point in a future post where I will discuss some other potential broader consequences for the electoral reform movement from the AV No vote). I think another thing that is clear from the AV failure is that more time would be needed to ensure the new system could be explained and understood much better than AV was by 5th May 2011.
Oh, and one more very important lesson. Please, please, please let's not have the referendum on the same day as any other elections!
FOOTNOTE: I have made the assumption for the purposes of this post that an STV campaign would follow roughly the same blueprint as the AV one did, i.e. a single question referendum with only two choice with a No and Yes campaign batting for each side. I actually think there are much better and more sophisticated deliberative processes that could and arguably should be used for something as important as changing our electoral system but that argument is for another day.
This post was first published on Dale & Co.