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.