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The electoral reform that no one wanted

As the post-defeat outpourings from Yes campaigners reveal, the 2011 referendum was an entirely elite concoction.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

Topics Politics UK

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The billboard posters have been removed, the emails have stopped, the website has vanished… It’s almost as if the ‘Yes to Fairer Votes’ referendum campaign – you know, the one in favour of the alternative vote – never happened. Which, given that the referendum result was 69 per cent against AV and 31 per cent in favour, might as well be true.

But now that the dust – or at least the few motes stirred during a stunningly ineffectual campaign – has settled, the blame game has started. For those who led the campaign, from senior Lib Dems such as Chris Huhne to Electoral Reform Society director Katie Ghose, the responsibility for the defeat was laid squarely at the door of the Conservative Party, and their dirty tricks-playing campaign group NO2AV. They broke their promise not to politicise the referendum, claim Ghose and Co. In doing so, the No lobby targeted prominent AV supporter Nick Clegg and exploited his stratospheric unpopularity. So it was the nasty Tories what lost it. They’re the reason why ‘Yes to AV’ polled only six million or so votes out of a potential 45million.

While embarrassed Lib Dem supporters and the Yes campaign’s directors have been ingeniously blaming the winners for, well, winning, actual Yes to Fairer Votes campaigners and activists have been looking a little closer to home for the reasons for defeat. One disgruntled campaigner got straight to the point: ‘It [was] because the Yes campaign was shockingly appalling.’

On Friday, national manager of regional staff for the Yes campaign Andy May, gave some flesh to the bones of activists’ disillusionment: campaign literature took weeks to reach actual campaigners; the media campaign spent most of its time reacting to the No campaign; communications teams received press releases, often second hand, after their period of relevance had passed; and the Yes ad campaign was simply terrible. ‘Tens of thousands of pounds’ were spent on hiring an agency, writes May, and ‘not one of the creative concepts designed ever saw the light of day’. Just as bemusing is May’s revelation that some staff at the Yes team’s headquarters took long holidays over the Easter and Royal Wedding weekend. Given that polling day would have been just days away, that does seem more than a bit complacent.

All this might look and sound like little more than a case of office politics exposed. And there’s an element of truth to that impression. The referendum, after all, was not a battle between two popular political parties, in which discipline and a commitment to organisationally embodied ideals, could trump personal dislikes and grievances. It was more like a battle between two advertising agencies, a PR war between two PR firms. To the opposing campaign groups the electorate didn’t appear to be composed of supporters, it appeared as a mass of potential consumers. Hence the grievances of vanquished Yes campaigners read like a list of complaints against the manager of a badly run ad agency: wrong staff appointments, bad campaign message, and senior management indolence.

But what is really striking is the extent to which the complaints of Yes supporters shed light on the fundamentally elite origins of the referendum and, perhaps more importantly, the demand for electoral reform which inspired it. They show that the referendum didn’t come about because there was a groundswell of popular discontent with the UK’s existing electoral system. On the contrary, they reveal that the referendum came about in the absence of any popular discontent with the existing electoral system. It was a campaign for a democratic reform desperately in search of a demos, a political campaign in want of a political movement.

For example, take these comments from Lib Dem supporter Angela Harbutt: ‘From the outset, the YES campaign was all about the tiny coterie of people who feel strongly about electoral reform. The emphasis was on these people “having fun” and being invited to comedy evenings… From the point of view of any observer, it was all about “them” (the micro-percentage of constitutional-reform obsessives) never about “us” (the people). None of this self-indulgent madness won a single vote for the YES side, but it probably lost thousands.’ James King, the Lib Dem lead for the Yes campaign in Camden, echoed Harbutt’s appraisal of the campaign’s insular nature: ‘Most of the leaflets seem to have been written by Guardian readers and directed at Guardian readers.’

Both Harbutt and King are right to take note of the insularity of a campaign in which, as Harbutt points out, spelling ‘Yes’ on a beach using pebbles and posting it on photo-sharing website Flickr was celebrated as a daring act of propagandistic genius. But they are wrong to see this insularity merely as a tactical mistake. Rather it was a product of the electoral reform lobby’s origins in a small but culturally influential metropolitan elite. Just a look at the smattering of boroughs in which the Yes vote prevailed is revealing: Kelvin (in Glasgow), central Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, and the London boroughs of Islington, Lambeth, Southwark, Hackney, Harringey and Camden. That the Yes campaign appeared insular shouldn’t have been a surprise. It was the product of a specific cultural milieu speaking to itself, not deliberately, but because the vast majority of us weren’t interested in listening.

May himself mentions the difficulty posed by the public’s lack of interest in electoral reform: ‘Another major problem was that the public awareness levels about AV and the referendum were very low so many of the early contacts made [through phone banks] were not Yes or Nos but “Don’t Knows” which were of little use to follow up “Get out the Vote” calls.’ And again, when talking about the need for members of the various lobby groups behind the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign to learn to get along, May explains that they are just too numerically small to do otherwise: ‘There isn’t enough money, media interest or grassroots support in this constitutional reform for people to be fighting their own side.’ [My emphasis]

Despite the Yes campaign’s best purple-clad, suffragette-invoking attempts to arrogate to itself some popular, democratic lineage, its very public post-defeat implosion tells a different story. The referendum was not the product of a popular struggle. It was not a concession won from a recalcitrant elite backed into a corner by the agitation and protests of the disenfranchised, whether Chartist or Suffragette. In fact, it had very little to do with the people. Rather it was the product of political class wrangling between the Lib Dems and Conservatives, with what external pressure there was exerted by a cronyistic band of professional lobbyists, from the Electoral Reform Society to Unlock Democracy. Which ever way you spin it, this was an elite concoction by and for an elite.

In this regard, the strange case of the 2011 referendum, a yes-no question that few felt needed to be posed, offers us a telling snapshot of contemporary UK politics. It appears as a game played by isolated cliques with the electorate cast in the role of largely unwilling spectators.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK

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