The AV referendum: a post-mortem

This post first appeared on an earlier incarnation of the Boggler Blog on 12 May, 2011.

So, the proponents of voting reform in the UK lost. Entirely expected, although I resisted writing a pre-mortem. What went wrong? And could it have been avoided?

First, there was the product. The Alternative Vote system was loved by almost no-one, not even its proponents. Nick Clegg is often quoted as calling it a ‘miserable little compromise’ – although click here for what he actually said, which is rather different – and that line came back to haunt the campaigners. But the truth is that AV is a ‘baby step’. It is majoritarian rather than proportional; it is a kind of first past the post system. Claims that AV was going to ‘change politics for good’ were always overblown, and seen to be so.

The second point concerns the peculiar process by which AV came to be seen as the alternative. It is striking that it was promoted by Gordon Brown as part of his increasingly frantic efforts to stay in office by making half-hearted progressive gestures. How that became formal Liberal Democrat policy during the coalition negotiations last year is not entirely clear to me, but the abandonment of proportional representation for AV robbed the proponents of change of a large part of their natural constituency. They tried to sell this as a step to a brighter future, but few bought it.

Third was the timing. Voting reform and other big constitutional change works when there is a groundswell – or you can create a groundswell – of support for the idea that the current system is outrageous and must be changed. This is a hard line to sell when you are in government. It’s even harder when you’re in a government that is pushing through the toughest cuts to public services in a generation, and bailing out big businesses at the same time. The only groundswell in evidence was widespread anger at the coalition, not widespread anger with the system that put them there. But even then, senior Lib Dems have been saying for more than a year that any government was going to be unpopular in its first few years while the cuts were made, and then while the cuts bite. What possessed them to think that that was a good time to sell constitutional change?

Fourth was the power of Conservative Party networks behind the “No” campaign. Out in the shires, it’s been noticeable how the Countryside Alliance and local Tory networks – often one and the same – have been pushing a “No” vote. The Prime Minister clearly played a double game, and the Lib Dems were naive to think he would do anything else. The Lib Dems are providing a convenient scapegoat, and the Conservatives are only too happy to use them as such.

Fifth was the split personality of the Labour Party, with many old Labour heavyweights showing their clear preference for unadulterated power, thus undermining their new leadership and handing an easy victory to the Conservatives. Tribalism and self-interest once more did for the progressives where a united front might have given the conservatives a bigger shake.

Sixth – and I put this last deliberately – was the astonishingly manipulative and mendacious campaign from the “No” side. I’m sorry to use such strong terms, but their campaign was vile, a deliberate pollution of public debate that should have been punished much more than it was. There has been plenty written on this, including on the media’s poor showing in challenging them. But what I think is more sad is that they could well have been punished had the other five factors not been present. They got away with it because the progressives were selling a limited improvement, were naive, and were split.

Was all this avoidable? Possibly. People in the Labour Party need to take a good, hard look at the role they played, but it seems to me that the Lib Dems were simply naive. They have been in a rush to take what they see as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enact some of their plans, but they needed more patience to build coalitions of support around a system that they really wanted. They needed to learn from Alec Salmond and the SNP, putting off a referendum until they were sure they were in a stronger position. They need to learn to judge the political winds better. Instead, they have shot their bolts and now find nothing left in the quiver. Meanwhile, they have protected the Tories from the hostility in the electorate, sacrificing themselves for someone else’s ends and values. That is a sad state of affairs for some good people up and down the country.

For links to my academic work on referendums, click here.

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