Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday 6 May 2011

The AV campaign was a disgrace from both sides

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.

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?


Steve B said...

The result will prove to be a sad reflection not just on the "yes" campaign but also on the electorate themselves who will be shown to be apathetic or worse still ignorant of the electoral system they are part of.Overall a sad day for British politics.

jamescbartlett said...

It's been a particularly frustrating campaign all round. First off, AV wasn't really the voting method any of the pro-change people originally wanted, but given no other choice that's what we had to go with. I'm not entirely sure the Yes campaign actually believed their own arguments and I'm sure they weren't convinced AV was the best choice, so that was always going to hinder getting a convincing message across. But the most annoying thing has been the No campaigns assumption that we're all stupid and would get all confused when confronted with ranking candidates rather than just choosing one. Cameron has been especially condescending and has gone down in my estimation due to the way he has conducted himself in interviews about AV. But at the end of the day I blame Gordon Brown and Labour as at the end of the day AV was their idea and, like many of their other ideas, was flawed from the beginning.

Anonymous said...

I think we can expect more of the same in the next general election. I expect the Tories to be very impressed with the PR agency that brought us the No campaign.

You are right about Referenda Mark, the same kind of thing would have happened with a EU constitution referendum. Probably with the same big money backers.

cheers simon

Paul E. said...

I think that the only conclusion to your question is to switch to an in-principle objection to referendums. I’ve outlined the arguments here and in the link off that post:

We’ve allowed ourselves to slip in to a bizarre situation where we have a constitutional convention (we don’t have a written constitution in the first place, btw, ffs!) where ‘constitutional change’ is brought about by the use of this profoundly anti-democratic tool.

I know LibDems have had their fill of ‘disappointment’ coming from lefties over the last year, but I was very surprised that they didn’t foresee this inevitable outcome and didn’t have a strong enough grasp of what democratic renewal meant in their back pockets.

I don’t believe it’s possible to have – within the same brain - a developed view of good democratic practice AND a view that voting reform in the UK can or should be delivered by a referendum.

I’ve outlined what I believe to be the cornerstones of a ‘good democracy’ in this post, and I must admit I used to be more inclined to believe that LibDems would recognise and agree with a lot of this than I am now.

I thought LibDems cared about democratic renewal – evidenced by the long-term focus on electoral reform. The evidence of the last year has awakened a suspicion that your view on this (like the worst of the Tory and Labour arguments) has nothing to do with principle and everything to do with instrumental politics.

I hope this isn't really the case and that this has been some kind of aberration.

If the LibDems DO take this disaster as a catalyst to review their principled position on democratic reform, it would give you the tools to reject some Coalition policies that are – to my mind – the most regressive and nasty things in the pipeline: Local referendums and elected police chiefs.

This experience could be an important turning point.

Anonymous said...

No explaination (simple as 1,2,3 doesn't cut it) was the first fatal flaw

The failure to split the ring wing vote (while also shoring up old northern Labour), by getting UKIP to argue that AV helps the chance of an EU referendum, was the second.

Paul Walter said...

Thanks for writing this Mark. Two points:

1. I was extremely frustrated that the Yes campaign didn't send out a flyer to all households by Royal Mail (as the No campaign did) explaining AV. And what the hell happened to the Electoral Commission pamphlet to every house explaining AV - both sides of the argument? During the Common Market referendum during the 70s, the government sent out a pamphlet to every home giving both sides of the argument.

2. This has strengthened me in the view that reform needs to be done through Parliament. Referenda do have their place, but they do depend on brisk rebuttals from both sides.

I think you may be ignoring one element. I think the Yes campaign did rebut the lies of the No campaign. But I think the negativity of the No campaign perhaps struck a chord with the reactionary strand of thought in the British public - esepcially among Labour voters. When push comes to shove there is a large portion of the British public who are against change and will latch onto any nonsense to avoid it.

In other words, although you and me find it difficult to believe, the British public by a margin, actually just didn't like Av and prefer FPTP. I know this is heresy to say in Liberal circles, but I think we need to accept that is possible. I saw some idiot saying STV would have done better. I don't think so. We would have got ourselves tied up in knots trying to explain that even more.

TheOldBrewer said...

This has been a bad period for democracy in the UK. A big problem for the NO campaign is that the AV argument is good. The NO campaigns only chance of winning was to adopt a strongly negative campaign. In the words of one NO Tweeter "I am not campaigning for FPTP but against AV". Sadly the YES campaign's core campaign slogans were anything but helpful. I guess they were conceived in the immediate aftermath of the MPs expenses scandal.

Anonymous said...

This IS sour grapes.

The YES campaign hardly covered itself in glory, and lets face it, Lib Dems are not exactly noted for their clean electoral tactics themselves...

The bottom line is that you wanted a referendum, you were given one [punching well above your electorial weight to do so] and you (probably ;-) lost.

Deal with it. Just perhaps it was because the public DON'T WANT AV, rather than some evil plot by the NO side. As a party you will be punished again for the conceit of thinking like the EU and that the public would have got it "right" if it weren't for those pesky kids...

Mark Thompson said...

Anonymous - My point is how the hell can we know what the result means given all the rubbish that has been flying back and forth, as I made clear from both sides?

Irrespective of any of that we will all have to accept the result no matter what it is. My concern is how this will affect future referendum proposals as this one has been a dreadful example.

Martin Keegan said...

The solution to the lies is a longer referendum campaign. I was horrified when I discovered that Nick Clegg wanted to push the referendum through so that it happened this May. That left no time for the lies of each side to be rebutted.

The UK public and commentariat do not know much about electoral systems, as their racist attacks on the AV-using Australian polities showed. Given eighteen months rather than six months to digest the issues and rebut the lies, a more informed decision could have been taken.

Oxford Tory said...

Saying that AV would end safe seats - when in fact 2nd preferences aren't counted if a candidate wins 50% of 1st preferences - was also a "lie". Lib Dems are the worst when it comes to fibs in election literature, so most people in politics will think they've a dose of their own medicine.

Oranjepan said...

meh2AV indeed!

electoral reform is tied up in constitutional change, so a simple vote on the electoral system alone is irrelevant as future reforms such as the HoL were always likely to be modified to take the result into account whatever it was, rendering it effectively meaningless.

the public as a whole may not be exactly clear on this but we are smart enough to recognise there were a number of unanswered questions - like, why AV anyway?

The Yes campaign was largely negative because it never really convinced on this fundamental issue. As a result it was stillborn and unlikely to win.

I cannot disagree more strongly with the first commenter who says this is a sad day for British politics because it shows the electorate to be apathetic or ignorant, it doesn't and I think it is a bad idea to go round insulting people who you want to support you.

In a democracy you get the result you deserve, as whatever the system you operate under you know the rules before you start and you choose your tactics accordingly.

To lose is purely a reflection of missteps in the course of the campaign.

Now, who's betting Clegg and Huhne actually voted 'No'?

Anonymous said...

"But at the end of the day I blame Gordon Brown and Labour as at the end of the day AV was their idea and, like many of their other ideas, was flawed from the beginning."

Oh I'm loving that! Cameron could rape Clegg during a joint press conference and still the libdems would find a way to blame Labour.

It is the constant anti-Labour rhetoric of the libdems that sunk AV. Conventional wisdom was bang on: tory voters would be 90% against it, libdems for it and Labour voters split. Thus, Labour voters were the swing vote, the centre ground. By alienating them you f*cked AV.

And the referendum was bugger all to do with Brown or Labour, it was the deal Clegg made with Cameron. It is the libdem leadership's fault for being seduced by the thought of power and accepting such a miserable compromise. Then being so absolutely moronic as to hold the referendum when they were most unpopular and hold it on the same day as other elections.

outsider said...

The referendum outcome does not, I think, fit your argument. The most remarkable feature to me, as a non-party English No voter, was that Scotland,Wales and Northern Ireland all voted No.
All three already have electoral systems more complex and costly than AV and their voters tend to be more sophisticated. So they are unlikely to have been put off by "failure to explain", "lies over cost" or other threats of dire consequences. In Northern Ireland, the blame cannot even be laid at a backlash against the LibDems because there aren't any and the sister Alliance Party polled perfectly respectably.
Quite simply, the majority of voters in these nations did not like AV. Any post mortem by Yes fans should focus on this and perhaps leave England to one side.

I can suggest two reasons.
1)Most people do not want coalition governments, for reasons that are apparent, and think AV would deliver this as the norm. The most egregious cliche of the political class is that the people voted for a coalition Government in 2010. No we didn't. Few if any Labour or Conservative voters were voting for a hung Parliament. Some LibDems were, but not necessarily the stop-Labour hangers-on or the (now-departed) stop-the-Tories crowd.

2)AV was widely seen as the "Elect-more-LibDems" system rather than more generally representative, because the centre party could rely on more 2nd,3rd and 4th preferences than any other. (Although the Greens and UKIP supported Yes, this seems to owe more to self-delusion than sense.) Since most electors do not vote LibDem, most were unsympathetic, just as most of us would have voted against the pro-Conservative half of the Electoral Reform Act if we had been given the chance.

Personally, I would be happy to pay my share of an extra £50 million a year for a reformed electoral system that enabled people to get more policies they wanted, but that would need to be one that enjoyed reasonable support across the political spectrum rather than simply favouring the party/parties in power at the time. Almost by definition, we are not likely to get that.