Saturday 7 May 2011

So where did it all go wrong for AV? Three theories of a referendum defeat

The decisive rejection of the Alternative Vote by more than two to one in a referendum will almost certainly close the chance of electoral reform for the House of Commons for a decade, and perhaps more.

So why was the referendum lost so heavily? What lessons should be drawn by those who wanted a different outcome?

There are, broadly, three broad possible categories of explanation for the Yes defeat, and I am going to contribute to the immediate inquest by examining these in a short series of Next Left blogposts.

One view – (‘ask a silly question’, or “the eternal verities of the status quo”) - will take this result as demonstrating conclusively not only that the British people didn’t want the Alternative Vote, but that they would never have wanted or voted for electoral reform in just about any circumstances. If this is true, then the lesson of the 2011 referendum Is very simple. Forget about electoral reform forever.

The second perspective – political context (perhaps especially “the Clegg factor”) – would suggest that campaigners for reform were handed a poisoned chalice by their champions in this government.

This would emphasise that it was extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible, to win an electoral reform referendum once the May 2010 Coalition was formed, once this required the third party to triumph in a public vote against their government partners by forming a countervailing alliance, in which the coalition’s opponents would be essential to a majority strategy. Combining the referendum with the May 2011 local elections exacerbated these difficulties. (A variation within this theme that the choices made by the Coalition’s refomers were fatal would be the theory that the LibDems made a mistake to hold an AV referendum, rather than to insist on one on PR, or to wait until that was possible).

If defeat in the referendum was always probable, this provokes a central question about political strategy in the Coalition negotiations. Why did the Liberal Democrat leadership miscalculate and believe that there was a good chance of the reformers winning, so making their central prize in the coalition negotiations something that was to prove not just a mirage, but the occasion of a damaging public humiliation?

The third view - campaign strategy, “was it Yes wot lost it?” – would argue instead that it was worth choosing to fight a referendum, because it was winnable, if it had been fought differently. This view depends not just on being able to anatomise what the Yes campaign, and its supporters across different parties, might have done differently, but also on providing a plausible account of how a referendum for fairer votes could have been won.

Two further posts will examine the idea that the Yes campaign could and should have done much better, and the counter-claim that the choices made by the LibDems to secure the referendum proved fatal to its chances of success.

The idea that electoral reform was bound to be lost because people will never want it lacks any credible evidence base, though it may well be popular with conservatives, who certainly have their tails up this weekend.

This idea will also get an important boost in broader political and public discourse from the (rare and historic) fact of a referendum lost. The particular pattern of the handful of places which voted Yes will be used to add colour to the idea that this was an obsession of an out-of-touch metropolitan elite.

So we will hear quite a lot this weekend about why electoral reform is dead – and it is certainly going to experience a long hangover.

Having put the question and lost, reformers do need to take the result seriously. Some of the instinctive reactions– “we wuz robbed by dirty tricks”, or “it would all have been different if it was PR” – are too simplistic, and could get in the way of a serious attempt to learn the lessons of defeat. (I am very sceptical that there is decent evidence that a campaign for PR could have been won in a referendum last week, though will be interested to see if anybody wants to make a serious attempt to make that case).

But there have been successful campaigns for political change in Britain – including winning referendums – for devolution in Scotland (very strongly) and in Wales (by a whisker, the first time) and for an elected Mayor and London assembly. Those new institutions which were succesfully established by popular consent, have used PR.

The Yes campaign perhaps rather more resembled the even more heavily defeated North-East regional assembly campaign, in never getting across convincingly an argument about the problem or the proposed solution.

We have established a new constitutional convention that major changes to the ‘rules of the game’ require a referendum. There are also now several comparative examples of successful and failed attempts to change electoral systems through referenda.

It is undoubtedly the case that electoral reformers significantly underestimated how difficult it would be to win the referendum, and the challenge of converting pluralities or majorities in opinion polls on low salience issues into winning a public vote.

One striking difference between the campaign for Scottish devolution and that for electoral reform in 2011 was the breadth of civic and political mobilisation after the 1992 General Election. The Yes campaign was trying to win a referendum on electoral reform at a time when the issue tended to be very much in the asterisk range (less than 1%) of voters views of the most important political issues.

If reformers want to return to seek another once in a generation chance in a decade or two, it would be of foundational importance to develop much stronger ‘theory of change’ and the necessary conditions to win the public argument for reform – both to learn how to choose the right battles, and to maximise the chances of winning them.

Our next AV inquest post will look at some of the key choices that the Yes campaign made on the road to defeat this time around.

So, where are the calls for first-past-the-post in Scotland?

The SNP have also now shown it is possible to occasionally win a slim overall majority under a PR system. Like me, you may have missed the objections from supporters of first-past-the-post that the SNP did not win more than 90 of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament. That is roughly what might have happened at Holyrood under first-past-the-post.

The SNP won 53 (72%) of the 73 constituency contests on their 45% of the vote, ending with 53% of the seats.

Now that Labour Is no longer axiomatically the biggest party in Scotland, will we hear British Tories argue that Labour and the SNP should cooperate to introduce first-past-the-post, so as to give Scottish voters a clear choice of government, avoiding the compromises and trade-offs of Coalition?

Though it would seem to contradict their public arguments, I suspect that David Cameron and his Westminster colleagues may well continue to support PR – in Scotland.


Anonymous said...

What about people who wanted Electorial Reform but not AV?

A lot too who wanted it until the Liberals joined the Tories - and then saw it as an opportunity to punish them.

The Liberals claim it was them taking the blame for the Coalition - this is probably true. A lot of liberal supporters feel betrayed by the party. Very few Liberal voters wanted to see a Tory government.

Newmania said...

It is a profound mistake to suppose a system that works for one place will work in another and whilst you may be right that the Conservative Party top table are misty eyed about the union very few of their voters are, Most are more than ready to cast off the bag of wet oats that is Scotland.
You have omitted the possibility that the British understood the question and answered it, simply not to your satisfaction

As a fully paid up member of the regressive majority I was delighted to see what I have been saying for years demonstrated indisputably.

13eastie said...

Will look forward to your ruminations, Sunder, (and I'm sure I can trust that, unlike a good many other #Yes2AV folk, you will resist the temptation to blame the voters themselves) but perhaps you might also consider another explanation alongside the other three?

It might be more painful to consider for self-professed 'progressives' than any of the others.

"Progressives" have failed to understand the electorate, and they have done so since we can remember.

The evidence is piling up that this is the case, and it is not just about AV.

Who are the voters?

I don't believe many progressives meet them, but I do every day. They are van drivers. Self-employed tradesmen. Would-be first-time entrepreneurs. Daily Mail reading grandparents. They exist in their millions and they turn up to their polling stations like clockwork.

People who want to believe that their hard work, unaided, can make their families' lives better.

People who have nothing at all in common with Laurie Penny or the Fabians.

Tony Blair understood this. He DID "get aspiration".

Thatcher LIVED it.

Deficit-denial might work in the Islington focus groups, but is a huge turn-off for people with young kids whom they know will be penalised for every penny of "progressive" profligacy.

Real voters of all persuasions trust themselves to express a sensible preference. They do not feel it should be cross-examined by fringe followers. Why did the "progressives" not recognise this before the referendum?

I suggest that it is because they never look beyond their own circle.

Labour's run of popularity never depended on doing so - a benign economic inheritence and a dysfunctional outgoing Govt saw to that. When the real lunacy started, the public saw through the fiscal smoke and mirrors way before the left's political elite did.

I suggest that the "progressives" are, in fact, a tiny, tiny, first-name-terms minority. No more than a conceited clique of self-congratulatory snobs.

Why on earth don't they bother to find out what people believe, rather than telling them what they think they SHOULD believe?

Daragh McDowell said...

I think the relevant figure here is the 60% who DIDN'T vote. They're the ones who bought into the stultifying myth that electoral reform doesn't matter to 'real' people and is a distraction from 'real' policy.

We should also admit that the press will always, and everywhere be hostile to the aims of electoral reform. There is a direct correlation in the empowerment of people and the securing of actual democratic reform, and the decline in the power of the press oligarchy. We may have a free referendum, but we will never have a fair one because the propaganda war will always be desperately one-sided.

So given that the overwhelming majority of Britains either said 'Yes' or 'I don't care' to electoral reform, we should aggresively interpret that as a mandate to act through parliament. Work to build a coalition of 330-odd MPs willing to pass PR-STV through parliament. Tories have always stressed the ultimate sovereignty of parliament - play by their rules.

Newmania said...

..and of course AV would have made those who do not vote at all of no interest to anyone . This is why , for the Labour Party to back the odious idea was a betrayal of the very people they should be there for .

Not poncy Liberal second choices. The poor and educationally disenfranchised.

13eastie said...


This is satire, right?

Blame the voters for the referendum outcome?

"Re-interpret" a truly unequivocal result by

a) counting the abstentions as ayes

b) changing the question retrospectively


Daragh McDowell said...

@13eastie -

Not at all. Its a call for progressives to first off recognise that they will never, ever be able to 'win' an electoral reform referendum because 80% of the press will be against it under any circumstances. Secondly - stop fetishising process, as progressives are wont to do. Make the argument that the anti-democratic influence of the Murdoch's and Barclay Brothers etc. make the running of a democratic referendum impossible and impose reform - REAL reform - through parliament.

13eastie said...

You propose to deal with "anti-democratic" influences through imposition of your own brand of reform?

How many votes did Pol Pot get with such an approach?

And there was me, just a couple of posts back of suggesting the Yes2AV people had been a tad paternalistic...

Sunder Katwala said...

just to attempt to stick to my categoriation! ...

13eastie ... your argument strikes me as in category (1), unless there was a much less elitist campaign for electoral reform which might have won. You put the case against a very narrow progressive elite rather more strongly than I do (from within it!), but you will see at least a little bit of overlap and some acknowledgement of that in the post on the Yes campaign's strategy.

salazarbooks ... 'we could have won on PR, not AV' is a category (2) explanation: that the LibDems made the wrong calls in the Coalition deal.

I think that general point is very plausible, and will think about this for the next post. But I very much doubt a May 2011 referendum for PR could have been carried.

T.N.T. said...

13eastie - your argument fails to explain why Cameron only secured 36% of the vote - a loser's share, in most post-war elections - in last year's general election. If your analysis was correct the Tories would be averaging 50 to 60 percent of the national vote every election. Whilst I'm sure you'd like that to be true, there is (fortunately) no evidence to support it.

No2AV didn't win over 60% of the vote just because of the Tories. They won 60% because a majority of Labour voters - and indeed a majority of Lib Dems(!) joined them in the No bloc. There is a complex web of reasons for that - which I am confident Sunder will untangle over the next few days.

13eastie said...


I'm not sure your category (1) covers this. It implies that voters are docile and, facing anything remotely complex, simply opt for the status quo.

I don't think this is at all the case. The average voter (like the average motorist) truly believes his position is at least as valid as the next man's.

He does not recognise the right of the supporters of 'losers' (or the BNP if we wish to continue both sides' hysteria) to have "another go" at knocking his man off his perch.

The average voter has not gone with status quo re. AV. He has deliberately rejected an idea that he simply finds morally objectionable.

My point is not that the argument was unwinnable. It is that arrogance and paternalism allowed the left to dismiss out of hand a massive constituency that was able to devastate its opponents with ease.

The failure was deserved.


What on earth has Cameron's general election poll got to do with this, and why in the world should you think I owe an explanation for it?

For what it's worth, 35% got Blair a majority of 66 in 2005. Presumably you were outraged?

T.N.T. said...

Cameron's general election poll has got *everything* to do with it. You submitted an argument that implied that No2AV won because over 60% of the voters were 'anti-progressive'. I replied that, if that were the case, it's not clear why Cameron didn't win over 60% of the vote in 2010. You don't owe me or anyone else an explanation for anything, but it does rather undermine your argument if, when challenged on your assertions, you resort to abuse rather than argument.

As a matter of fact I *was* outraged that Blair got a majority of 66 in 2005 on 35% of the vote. But that's the kind of thing that tends to happen under First Past the Post - a system you support, and I don't.

13eastie said...


(Abuse? Calm down, dear...)

I have to assume that the reason you even ask the question is that you've fallen in the trap the Yes2AV camp set for itself - trying to portray FPTP as "Tory".

The simple fact is there are many conservative Labour voters who would never vote either for the Tories or for AV.

Scotland rejected Labour and AV comprehensively with barely anyone voting Tory.

Blair's 2005 majority would have been unchanged by AV, since adoption of AV would not address the gerrymandered boundaries that caused it.

If you were outraged in 2005, you should be pleased that the next GE will be contested over new boundaries around drawn around fewer constituencies.

13eastie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
13eastie said...

Apologies for the deletion - duplicated my post...