Monday, 30 May 2011


Paul Anderson writes:

I set up AV is Not PR as a straightforward contribution to the anti-AV campaign, but I was also trying out blogging and social media. My hunch was that straight 2003-style blogging was a waste of time these days but that you could get a bit of purchase by putting everything out on social networking sites too.

Which is what I did.

1. Lots of people looked at it and turned away.

2. Hardly anyone bothered to comment or engage dierectly on the blog, though they did on the linked social networking sites. Without Facebook and Twitter, blogging is dead.

3. I felt completely bonkers because I was going on about something no one gave a toss about, and Tweeting and FBing to all your contacts about something they don't care about is, ah, totally uncool.

But -- there is a but, honest -- a lot of the arguments I put forward were taken up by the commentariat. OK, they might have reached their own conclusions without any intervention from me, but they nicked stuff too. You know who you are.

What the hell. The point is that blogging on big national issues is, if not pointless, about as effective as a leaflet drop on a suburban street. Old-style stand-alone-site blogging is over unless you get it perfect. I didn't. Getting social network blogging right is a skill I need to acquire. I haven't done it.

It was worth the effort, but now forward to the next time. Er, and the arguments agaist the alternative vote still stand, just in case.

This blog is now on standstill.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011


Andy Roberts writes:

I just read your article in Tribune about the alternative vote referendum.

I voted "yes", and I think, as a PR supporter since forever and a day, that you are probably profoundly wrong, strategically, about this – I say probably because, at the end of the day, who really knows?

Of course, much of what you say is quite correct – not least that this was a vote for something which virtually no-one really supports (apart from Peter Hain – I still have a copy of his pamphlet Proportional Misrepresentation from the 1980s, with which I have always strongly disagreed). A "miserable little compromise" indeed …

I was initially doubtful about voting “yes”, given the polls then, on the grounds that if it was successful, it could stymie further progress towards PR.

However, I was convinced by the argument – made by David Lipsey, at a meeting of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform – that once one change was made, and the existing system was de-mystified and not seen as something eternal and existentially "British" (to quote John Reid), it would be easier to make future changes.

If you look at the election results, it does seem to bear this out. Those regions which have already had some experience of different electoral systems were more pro-change (though not massively so).

The “yes” vote (by percentage) for the UK regions was as follows:
Northern Ireland 43.6
London 39.5
Scotland 36.3
Wales 34.5
South West 31.5
Yorkshire and the Humber 31.2
North West 30.2
South East 29.6
Eastern 29.0
East Midlands 28.7
West Midlands 28.5
North East 28.0
(There was also a particularly strong pro-change trend in a number of inner London boroughs - the reasons for which I am not clear about – but it would be interesting to know why, for instance, there was a 10,000 majority in favour of AV in Hackney.)

Anyway, although we obviously now have to start from the argument, as you say, that PR was not even tested in the referendum, I am not sure that the majority of the electorate are going to see it that way. I fear that the argument that the referendum endorsed first past the post will win the day for many years to come. I can only hope that I am wrong on this.

Thursday, 12 May 2011


Peter Facey, director of Unlock Democracy, the successor organisation to Charter 88 and one of the pro-PR organisations that most enthusiastically embraced the "yes" campaign, has an interesting piece here:
Before the election, Unlock Democracy said that for any voting reform to find favour, the voters needed a sense of ownership of it. We suggested a Citizens Convention; what we got was a politician’s compromise. In the years that followed Tony Blair’s failure to deliver his promised referendum on the system proposed in the Jenkins report (alternative vote plus), AV was seen as the only game in town by the political elite and Westminster establishment ... Before the expenses crisis, Labour supporters of electoral reform were wary of proposing anything more radical.

Once Gordon Brown announced that Labour would hold a referendum on AV in 2009, the prospects of any other reform finding support in Westminster melted away. The irony was that AV was always sold to reformers as a system that could unite Labour behind reform. In the end, more than half of Labour MPs opposed it.

In the coalition negotiations AV became the maximum David Cameron would concede; ironic given the dire apocalyptic warnings he has been issuing about AV over the past few months. That decision was made by eight men (and there were no women) sitting in a boardroom in the Cabinet Office. Without an independent process it meant that it looked like the deal that was all about self interest rather than public interest. This is something NO2AV exploited. Combined with Nick Clegg’s unpopularity it became a toxic mix.

If we want to avoid this in future, then any proposed change must come out of a deliberative process which is independent of political parties, involves the public to as great an extent as possible, and which can demonstrate at least some measure of public demand for reform. Such a process would by definition be quite lengthy and its outcome unclear but it is crucial if we are to avoid making future referendums so partisan ...


It is going to be hard to be taken seriously on proportional representation for some time after the alternative vote referendum – and there will inevitably be some blood-letting in the PR camp over the extraordinarily stupid decision of most prominent PR backers to support the "yes" campaign on AV.

But the struggle continues. It was AV specifically that was rejected in the referendum, not electoral reform as such. The case for proportional representation for the House of Commons remains as strong as it ever was and was not tested by the referendum.

What next? These are my first thoughts:

  • Draw up a manifesto It should make the points that (a) it was only AV that was rejected on 5 May; (b) the case for PR remains as strong as ever; (c) the reasons we need PR have nothing to do with any party's self-interest.

    It is probably not a good idea to have Nick Clegg or Chris Huhne or any other Lib Dem fronting this initiative.

  • Make it a campaign for PR With AV out of the picture, the campaign for electoral reform must be explicitly in favour of proportional representation. It's not just  "change" – it's a particular change.
  • Purge the pro-PR organisations The electoral reform pressure groups, all of which are pro-PR, have been horribly compromised by their enthusiasm for AV in the referendum campaign. They need new personnel and a new political direction. With notable exceptions, the Charter 88 generation has let us down.
  • Back AMS not STV There are two PR systems that have significant support in the UK: the additional member system (used in German general elections and in the Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly and London assembly) and the single transferable vote (traditionally backed by the Liberal Democrats). AMS retains single-member constituencies but tops up the results regionally; STV uses multi-member constituencies. The constituency link is the key point here: drop it and you lose a key element of British democracy. AMS is also familiar to a large number of UK voters.

  • Use Germany as a campaigning example The Federal Republic of Germany has used the additional member system since its inception – and no one could claim that it has had extremist governments. But it has had alternation of left and right governments and has seen the emergence of new parties, most notably the Greens.

  • Focus on Labour After the AV referendum fiasco, it's clear that the only way we'll ever get PR is through a Labour government. It's a long shot, true, but there was serious support in the parliamentary Labour Party and among constituency Labour parties for AMS before the AV referendum, and it's probably still there.

OK, your thoughts please.


Tribune column, 13 May 2011

Last week's defeat for the “yes” campaign in the alternative vote referendum was richly deserved.

The “yes” campaign failed miserably to put across its case for changing the electoral system for the House of Commons from first past the post to preferential voting.

Its efforts were risible from the start, when its launch was fronted by a comic and an actor, and went downhill from there.

The “yes” campaign never managed to make better arguments for AV than that it “would make MPs work harder” (though it never explained how) and that it was somehow “fairer” than the status quo (ditto). Within a couple of weeks of its launch, it had been reduced to whining that the “no” campaign were nasty rough boys – and after that it became all-but-invisible for a while.

It got a few headlines when Ed Miliband belatedly gave it lukewarm support (though only after he made it clear that he would not appear on a pro-AV platform with Nick Clegg). It got a few more when increasingly desperate Liberal Democrats entered the fray to repeat the complaint that the “no” campaign were nasty rough boys.

But that was it. The Independent and to a lesser extent the Guardian filled in a few of the gaps in the “yes” campaign with coherent if hardly powerful leaders and opinion columns in favour of the principle of preferential voting, the New Statesman added its tuppence-ha'penny-worth in typically incompetent fashion – and then the great British public had their say.

Their verdict was decisive. Of those that voted (42 per cent, which in the circumstances wasn't bad), 69 per cent backed “no” and just 31 per cent “yes”. The alternative vote is now dead as an option for reform of the voting system.

It would be wrong, however, to claim that the incompetence of the “yes” campaign was the sole factor in the result. It was up against a much-better-funded “no” campaign that was brutally populist. And, Guardian and Independent apart, the media were indifferent when they were not hostile.

But the most important reason that the “yes” campaign lost was that it was trying to sell a prospectus it didn't really believe in itself – and voters smelt a rat.

There are a handful of people who genuinely believe that AV is the best possible system for electing a legislative assembly, among them the Labour MP Peter Hain, the journalist John Rentoul and the pollster Peter Kellner. (For all I know, Ed Miliband might be another, though I have my doubts.)

For most of the “yes” camp, however, AV was not what they really wanted.

Extraordinarily, even Nick Clegg, the man who made the referendum on AV a condition of Liberal Democrat participation in coalition with the Tories, didn't really want it. He memorably dismissed AV in an April 2010 interview as a “miserable little compromise”.

No, what Clegg and the overwhelming majority of the “yes” campaigners really wanted was proportional representation. They were pushing for AV only as a step towards PR.

(As regular readers will be aware, this column argued that the notion that AV was a step to PR was twaddle, and that supporters of PR should vote “no”. Very few other pro-PR people agreed, however, and most joined the “yes” campaign.)

Of course, they couldn't say that they saw AV merely as a means to a different end during the campaign. On one hand, it would have split the pro-AV camp, because one of the things true believers in AV find attractive about it is that it is not PR. On the other hand, it would have given the “no” campaign a golden opportunity to claim that AV was a Trojan horse for PR.

So we ended up with the grotesque spectacle of supporters of proportional representation running around the country trying to whip up enthusiasm for a change they saw not as an end in itself but as a first step towards something completely different, all the time denying that they were doing any such thing.

It's hardly surprising that voters saw through the ruse and gave the “yes” campaign the same treatment they'd give a dodgy insurance salesman.

The decision of so many supporters of PR to attach themselves to the “yes” campaign has done serious damage to the credibility of proportional representation from which it will undoubtedly take time to recover – and several prominent pro-PR people in the “yes” campaign should at very least be issuing public apologies for making a very bad call on the referendum.

Look on the bright side. The lost referendum was not on PR. Although the alternative vote now has no credibility, the case for a proportional lower house remains as strong as ever – and untested with the electorate.

Saturday, 7 May 2011


... Well, actually it wasn't, but the resounding "no" vote in the alternative vote referendum is welcome all the same. The British people have rejected a lousy electoral system, preferring the bad to the worse. They did so essentially because the "yes" campaign failed to marshall a single powerful argument in favour of changing to AV. The "no" campaign's shameless scare tactics undoubtedly had an effect, as did the desire to give Nick Clegg a deserved kicking, but they weren't the decisive factors.

What the result does not represent is a rejection of proportional representation, which was not on the ballot. It will no doubt be difficult for supporters of PR to be heard – let alone taken seriously – for a time. But this is to a large extent the fault of those supporters of PR who, opportunistically or stupidly, decided to throw in their lot with the pro-AV campaign even though they didn't want AV. You know who you are, and you should be ashamed of yourselves – or even better engage in some grovelling public self-criticism. You got the call 100 per cent wrong on this one, I'm afraid ...

More on this next week.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011


Has there ever been a less enlightening political campaign than the one on the alternative vote referendum? Charlie Brooker sums it up perfectly in the Guardian:
It's depressing to see the campaigns on both sides treating the public with such outright contempt. Political ads have rarely been subtle in the past, but this current slew could insult the intelligence of a silverfish. It's not so much that they think we're stupid, but that their attempts to appeal to that perceived stupidity are so stupid in themselves; they've created a sort of self-perpetuating stupidity whirlpool capable of engulfing any loose molecules of logic within a six-mile radius. They might as well replace every billboard with the words VOTE LIKE THIS, DUMMY in four-foot high Helvetica.