Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 27 May 2013

The toxic legacy of the AV referendum campaign

If I am honest I am still quite bitter about the 2011 AV referendum campaign and its outcome. Let's not kids ourselves that AV would have been a panacea. It definitely wouldn't have been. But it would have been a small step in the right direction, introduced people across the country to the idea of preferential voting and helped to ensure our MPs had a moderately stronger claim to each be there with in some cases broader support than they get under first past the post. So I am disappointed about the legacy the loss of the campaign has bequeathed us.

But what I am despondent about is the legacy that the winning No2AV campaign has bequeathed us.

Because that camp has post-hoc legitimised the misleading and outright stupid tactics that they pushed. Never mind about the truth, let's just pretend that AV is going to cost £250 million. By the time the Yes side has come up with a response the lie will have taken hold and they will be on the back foot. I've got a good wheeze: Let's publish a picture of a soldier and strongly imply that if people vote for AV they will not get the bullet-proof vests they need.  No, no hang on! I've got an even better one. Let's publish a picture of a new-born baby and even more strongly imply that if people vote for AV, sick children will not get the equipment they need. Oooh, I've got it! Let's come up with a spurious and tendentious set of reasoning that suggest the BNP will benefit from it. Oh, hang on the BNP are against AV. Who gives a shit! Let's say it anyway! Once we've released the boogeyman from the jar the Yes campaign will be playing catch-up trying to rebut it.

And so on, and so on.

I'm not saying the Yes campaign were perfect, they certainly weren't. But the No side exhibited all the characteristics of a "Whatever we need to say to win and hang the truth" campaign.

And of course they did win. Massively.

So with the Scottish independence referendum campaign coming up next year and a likely EU in/out referendum campaign in the next parliament I genuinely fear what sort of utter bollocks is going to be pushed, probably by all sides.

We've already seen huge arguments over North Sea oil where as far as I can tell misinformation is being heavily pushed by both sides and also scare stories about Sterling (Scotland could easily carry on with the pound if they wanted but why let the truth get in the way?).

And with the incipient EU campaign there are signs of where this is all heading with Nigel Farage leading the charge claiming that 75% of our laws are made in Brussels. This is simply a lie. It is 10% at the absolute most. And the pro-EU side has been at it too with Nick Clegg claiming that 3 million jobs are at risk if we withdraw which is such an extreme reading of the possibilities that it is effectively a parody.

I'm not saying the AV referendum campaign has caused all of this. But it has taught everyone involved in politics a toxic lesson. No matter how ridiculous the lie during a referendum campaign there is no effective oversight or consequences so make em big and make em scary.

All that matters is that you win.


Tom Mein said...

Do you mean like trying to have a sensible debate about immigration and having 'racist' screamed into your face or trying to make a saving in the ballooning welfare bill and having it twisted to call it a 'tax' on the poor.
This has been the tactics of the left for years, so stop complaining when it is used against you.
Your parties treachery over the boundaries commission will be remembered

Mark Thompson said...

@Tom: I'm not on the left so I am not sure who your comments are directed at. And I deplore the sort of ridiculous caricaturing you refer to as much as you do.

Anonymous said...

This is nothing new though is it.

I remember the Blair devil eye posters the conservatives used back in 97 (or whatever, I was only 15)

Will Mann said...

We live and learn Mark.

Campaigning for AV, which we were only lukewarm about anyway, at a time when the Tories were in power and Labour hated anything coloured yellow was always going to be a loser for us.

But we learned that if you really want something in politics, then you have to play as dirty as is necessary.

Others have set the rules, and we can either sit on the sidelines wringing our hands, or fight back even dirtier. That's what we'll have to do in 2015 and beyond.

Stuart said...

What about the idea that the Electoral Commission is empowered during a referendum campaign actually to announce publicly that this or that "fact" being cited by one side or the other is actually untrue?

Alun said...

It shows we need better rules for referendums, right? We haven't had a lot of referendums in the UK, but it seems they will become more common in the future. So we need to make sure they are based on the facts.
I would dispense with seperate yes/no campaigns, that idea is discredited.
What we need is a single campaign, run by a neutral body set up for the duration of the referendum. The campaign would have responsibility to disseminate fact checked information about changes being proposed, and how they would affect the nation.
The media would have a responsibility to keep politicians and campaigners straight on the facts (sadly something the UK media is particularly bad at).

Alun said...

BTW AV was always a loser. Why the Lib Dems accepted this pathetic alternative to FPTP is beyond me.
I don't accept that it would be a step in any direction except sideways.

There were two much cleverer things the Lib Dems could have agreed to in the negotiations.

Firstly they could have demanded a referendum on the principle of a more proportional system. That's what they did in New Zealand. That would have provided a strong mandate to have a convemtion to find the best proportional system for the UK. Winning that referendum would have been easier.

Alternatively they could have negotiated STV for English local elections (ideally Welsh ones as well, thoug these are not now decided by Westminster). Having PR in English local elections (they already have STV in Scottish local elections), would have marginalised Westminster as the only UK elections not run as PR elections. They could also have changed a few systems to make less of a mishmash. For example making European Parliament elections STV, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections STV, London Assembly elections STV, London Mayoral elections proper AV (SV unfairly disadvantages tje Lib Dems).

But these more creative, and potentially more achievable goals, were not discussed. Instead we got the idiot AV.

I support electoral reform, have been a member of both Charter 88 and the ERS, and I did not support AV.

If you can't win over people like me, people who want meaningful electoral reform, then there is something wrong with the agreement you made.

That thing was accepting AV, which was never going to be something I supported, because it does not represent any sort of substantive change at all.

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

The idea of a neutral body to decide what is an isn't truth sounds geat on paper but in practice it could easily turn into an expensive reseach body that can't give simple Yes/No answers about claims or the futures.

To take just two of the issues where it's not a simple matter:

On the cost, the £250 million figure included predictions about likely subsequent developments as well as immediate plans. Yes Nick Clegg promised there were no plans to bring in voting machines but a ) Nick Clegg Promises were a pretty soft currency at the time and not worth banking; b ) voting machines *are* in use in the UK in some elections already such as the London Mayor & Assembly and Scottish local elections; and c ) only the previous year Parliament passed legislation to "Save Election Night" (whatever that means; our count here didn't declare until nearly 10:00 the next morning) so the idea that spending more money to get the result at the traditional speed had some validity from very recent history. (Anyone who can get all that into a poster to be read and remembered at 60 mph on the North Circular will have a good career in infodumping advertising.) But asking an independent body to peer into minds and the future and decide what might be a consequence in the UK's political culture isn't as simple as asking them to rule on black vs white.

Regarding the BNP, they have a long history of miscalculating so simply pointing to their stance in the referendum wasn't necessarily a slam dunk answer about their potential. (One could equally point to the experience of the One Nation Party in Australia who at their height won a number of seats in the Queensland parliament under optional AV, including several where they came second on first preferences - in fact they won six such seats as opposed to three where they led on first preferences and lost on transfers.) But the detail in the debate was actually about their ability to direct preferences and whether or not they'd gain influence with the bigger parties as a source of transfers - again in Australia many minor parties with no elected members wield their main electoral influence this way. Again how is an independent body to determine if the BNP or some other extremist party - and who gets to decide whether this applies to UKIP or "RESPECT" - would or wouldn't benefit in such a scenario even if their prospects of a parliamentary salary for their leader seem more distant?

Chris said...

I'm sorry to say it, but it's all your fault.

Your party did not have to accept an AV referendum.

You did not have to join the coalition - you could have let the Tories form a minority government.

You could have kept fighting for proportional representation, but you preferred ministerial cars and the illusion of power.

Oh, and Tom Mein, we only call you racist when you are. If you've been called that, there's probably a decent reason.

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

The markets were screaming for certainty - it would not have been a good time to experiment with minority governments. However I think the Lib Dems could have secured an STV referendum if they'd held out for it. They would probably have lost anyway - most of the arguments the No campaign made could just as easily apply.

As for accusations of racism, they are flung at just about any politician who dares to question whether the immigration system is fit for purpose or in need of reform. Some people may be more reserved in their use of the word, but others fling the accusation around all too freely.