Saturday 11 September 2010

Yes to Fairer Votes - and the missing voices in a campaign for AV

Electoral reformers who want to win the referendum have been anxious to see some campaigning activity begin. So it is good that the "Yes to Fairer Votes" campaign is now beginning to surface, with an annoucement that it has appointed an initial campaign steering committee. A holding website is beginning to gather information.

The six-strong steering committee is chaired by Pam Giddy, who chaired the Power Inquiry. The vice-chair is John Sharkey, the ex-Saatchi and Saatchi managing director, among Nick Clegg's closest advisers, and chair of the LibDem 2010 election campaign. The other steering group members are Neal Lawson of Compass; Peter Facey of Unlock Democracy; Willie Sullivan and Carina Trimingham, both of the Electoral Reform Society.

Each of them will bring strengths to the campaign. The group seems well placed to mobilise existing political reform and pro-PR activists to campaign for AV - particularly from the LibDems, Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy. But it will need to become considerably broader and more pluralist to oversee a winning campaign. It would be useful to broaden out the current very narrow group very quickly, since there are several key parts of a winning coalition not represented which the campaign will need to reach.

AV supporters: In a referendum on the Alternative Vote, it seems very curious that a six-strong steering group does not seem to contain even one person who is actually in favour of the Alternative Vote as their preferred electoral system: all six have publicly been pro-PR voices who see AV as a stepping stone. Some of those who are pro-AV, rather than PR supporters, include Peter Kellner, John Rentoul (though technically he prefers the supplementary vote, stopping at second preferences - [UPDATE: In fact, Rentoul prefers AV via a French-style second ballot for the top two, rather than SV] - and 'Red Tory' Phillip Blond, who has argued that FPTP is bankrupt. This is the position of a large number of MPs, of whom Peter Hain has argued this position most prominently for about thirty years. (Kellner made the case well in his Jenkins' report submission over a decade ago).

Weak Labour links: The six-strong group has close links at the very top of the LibDem party, but much weaker Labour connections to supplement this. Adding a senior ex-MP - such as Martin Linton or James Purnell, now chair of ippr - to the strategy group could significantly strengthen it here.

It seems likely that Labour voters will decide the outcome - being both most evenly divided and potentially most open to switching their votes, as Peter Kellner has set out.

Neal Lawson and Willie Sullivan have useful Labour grassroots links. Compass is an important and active voice on the Labour left, with significant party voices such as Jon Cruddas and Chuka Umunna closely involved, but its advocacy often reaches similar left-liberal reform audiences to the non-partisan voices represented. But Compass sometimes has a "marmite" quality in internal party debates, where Labour's social democratic centre-right has often provided many of the party's electoral reformers. (Neal Lawson has usefully linked up with groups like Progress on this issue, to demonstrate a cross-factional Labour reform push).

Trade unions: A more important challenge for Yes campaigners will be to engage trade union opinion, given that Labour supporters seem likely to be decisive in the referendum, and to ensure the campaign messages do not come across in the north-east, north-west and west midlands as London-centric.

Green movement: Compass may also help to influence some other liberal-left constituencies - such as the Greens - who are ambivalent about an AV vote, but the ability to engage broader progressive movements, such as environmentalists, will be important.

The right: The pro-AV campaign also needs to engage voices from the right. The Power Inquiry did engage reformist centre-right voices, such as Ferdinand Mount, and the Yes campaign must also do this. I would predict that at least one or two Tory Cabinet ministers will support the Yes campaign - with Oliver Letwin perhaps the most likely, from some balance of positioning and principle. One overlooked - yet potentially important - constituency are Eurosceptic voters who turn out strongly in low turnout elections. The No campaign will try to persuade them that the electoral system is part of the British way of life. Yet a Yes campaign "vote for who you want to" message in favour of preferential voting to should interest sceptics who worry about "wasted" UKIP votes costing the Tories seats. (UKIP are in favour of AV+).


The composition of the steering group will be less important if it does not signal an important choice about the campaign strategy. It is too early to tell whether the initial appointment of a narrow and exclusively pro-PR group signals either a strategic decision - or otherwise a subconscious bias - to argue a "stepping stone" case for the Alternative Vote on the way to PR.

That possibility is a necessary (but inward-facing) message to mobilise the Electoral Reform Society, Unlock Democracy and other campaigning constituencies who can generate campaign activism. It strikes me as an entirely mistaken platform on which to try to win a public campaign for AV, where over 10 million votes will be needed for victory.

No supporters are likely to consistently offer challenges (to PR) which are irrelevant in an argument about AV - such as arguing it will let the BNP in, despite AV being the most extremist-proof system, this could legitimise such challenges.

Whether or not this is the future direction, that is the case set out by Neal Lawson in The Guardian, who today follows Nick Clegg in seeming to play down the importance of the referendum choice, since his opening contribution to the case for a "Yes" argument asks:

"Given the scale of the problem, is this rather minor reform worth bothering with? The answer for the Labour party, whose support is likely to be critical in the referendum, is yes ...But is AV enough? The answer is no. It is not proportional representation which is what we really need to transform our political system, but the perfect should never be the enemy of the good".

However, I think can claim some of the credit for persuading Neal that AV is at least a worthwhile compromise, not a sell-out, a topic we debated for The Guardian at the end of last year. And we did find much more common ground on that occasion than at the very heated fringe debate at last Autumn's party conference, at which Neal declared himself "angry, frustrated and patronised" by Gordon Brown's proposal of an AV referendum. I think the Alternative Vote would change Britain's political culture more than supporters of PR acknowledge, and the case can be made for AV on its own merits.


Unknown said...

Sunder I cant speak for the campaign or for the others, but I am supporting a Yes not because it is a stepping stone to anything else, but simply because AV is fairer and better for voters than the current system.

In a referendum you cant ask voters to vote for something that is not on the ballot paper, you can only ask them to vote for the option you think is best and explain why.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks for the response. Would happily take a post soon or later about the public arguments for the Yes case, etc.

Dave Thawley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave Thawley said...

Calling anyone in Staffordshire that wants to get rid of our outdated, unfit for purpose FPTP system and replace it with something better which makes our MPs work harder for us. Why not join our local yes to fairer votes groups. If you want to please e-mail me on (Please replace with @

Dave Thawley said...

sorry - the board is filtering me - please add a @ between the two yy's in my e-mail address