On 5 June 1944 General Eisenhower, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied forces about to invade France, had last-minute doubts about the success of the operation. On the eve of the invasion he therefore drafted a contingency letter of ‘apology’ to be used in case Operation Overlord failed. In the event, of course, the landings in Normandy were a success and his apology was never required.
In a similar but rather less dramatic manner, I am therefore drafting two separate blog posts: “AV Referendum: a win for NO” and “AV Referendum: a win for YES”. Only one will be published. The reason for this is that, as I write this, I am waiting for the car to get its MOT done and have nothing else to do. It’s 08:30 on Friday 06.05.2011: the voting is over, but the count has not yet begun. We exist in a kind of superstate of Yes-ness and No-ness, just like the alive-ness and dead-ness of Schrodinger’s Cat locked in the box. I have time to spare now, but not after the count is announced, so I have to cover both eventualities and write up for both outcomes now. It’d be just my luck that we get a complete dead heat, but I’ll take my chances.
Polls suggest that I will be publishing the NO version; this may be considered equivalent to there being no signs of life emenating from the cat’s box, I suppose.
(Later…. it’s early evening and the bulk of the AV results are in showing approximately 30% YES, 70% NO. What follows is the ‘NO’ version of my post written earlier today.)
So it’s a win for NO. Given the opinion polls running up to the day of the election, this is not really a surprise and in a sense I had already resigned myself to accepting this result. That still makes it a disappointment, of course, because I believe that AV would ultimately have been better for voters.
In my opinion, a NO result means the following ‘bad’ things, from the point of view of someone who wanted (and still wants) to see electoral reform. Firstly, this result will be proclaimed by the NO campaigners as The People Do Not Want Reform. Even NO campaigners, if they’re honest, wouldn’t consider that entirely true, but it’s what I expect to see happen. (The only direct interpretation should perhaps be: People Do Not Want THIS Reform, Right Now; which is not quite the same thing). Politics is all about interpretation, after all.
It’s no secret that many YES voters viewed AV as a potential stepping-stone to further, future reform, typically some form of PR (whether via multi-member constituencies, or via additional ‘top-up’ seats as in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly). So I’m therefore interested in how the campaigners in the “No to AV, Yes to PR” camp feel about this result: I’m assuming they’re pleased, but I’m genuinely curious to see how one proceeds from here, because this feels like a major setback. The NO result has, in my opinion, crushed any prospect of future reform for decades. And the fact that a NO vote was given in a referendum for quite a small change means that this raises the bar considerably for future reform which will presumably need to be put to the country in a similar manner (even if at all). After all, the People said NO, didn’t they?
It’s worth considering the reasons why people voted the way they did. Those voting YES will have done so for two main reasons, I suspect: firstly, those who believe that AV gives a fairer result in an individual constituency, removes the need for tactical voting and so on; secondly, some will have voted YES for reasons such as “If ‘they’ want NO, I’m voting YES”, or anything for a change and possibly for other reasons. The reasons for those voting NO interests me more. The largest group of NO voters consists, I suspect, of Conservatives and some Labour supporters. It’s no secret that Conservatives and Labour have the potential to keep a disproportionately high number of seats compared to their share of the vote under FPTP and, therefore, oppose AV. Not exactly an ‘honourable’ reason, in my opinion, but at least it’s a valid reason based on how those people wish future governments to be composed.
There is also likely to be a large group of NO voters who consider themselves “anti-Clegg” or “anti-LibDem” and, seeing YES as largely benefiting the LibDems, voted NO. I understand this reason, especially given the horrible state of the LibDem’s current image, largely relating to tuition fees. However, I believe that voting NO for that reason is incredibly shortsighted. AV would result in a generally more balanced voting system for all, not just the LibDems and, if it does favour them, then that’s only because they’ve been particularly badly treated by the current system and almost anything would be an improvement! The first election under AV would have been in 2015, by which time the electoral landscape could be very different. (As an aside, I’m disappointed the LibDems who are taking seemingly all the bad press for the actions of a Coalition in which they have less influence than the Conservatives, while the latter appear largely unscathed. The local election results, plus Scottish/Welsh parliamentary returns, suggests that nation-wide it’s only the LibDems who have been given an electoral kicking. Of course the tuition fees ‘broken promise’ must be a major contributing factor, there’s no denying that.)
However, there is a further large group of NO voters who don’t easily fall into the Conservative/Labour group. This is the group who have been led to believe – quite incorrectly as any independent analysis will show – one or more of the outright lies which were being peddled by the NO campaign. These issues are well-known, but include: AV is confusing and complicated (no it’s not, everyone knows how to rank their choices), AV gives some people multiple votes (it doesn’t, by any impartial assessment), AV will ‘let the BNP in’ (it won’t), AV will cost £250 million (it won’t) and so on. In fact, on the last point I heard yesterday that David Blunkett had quite brazenly announced that the “£250 million” figure was simply “made up”. It would be a great shame if this group made the difference between a YES result and a NO result (Edit, following bulk of results: given the scale of the NO win, I expect this is unlikely. I actually draw some comfort from this). But, still, well done NO campaign: you made some people think they’re too stupid to count and that they should be afraid of non-existent threats. Job done. *rolls eyes*
So what does a NO vote mean for the future? Well, combined with the kicking for the LibDems in the polls, I think it means a (possibly temporary) return to a strong two-party system at the next election and beyond. The future of the Conservative/LibDem government coalition is uncertain. Retaining FPTP means that we’ll still have MPs elected with minority support, we’ll still have to vote tactically in many constituencies and many votes will be wasted.
Is there a bright side here? Well, possibly. One of the only real failings of AV as a system is that if a single party has a huge lead in the polls, their majority may be exaggerated by AV. Not much consolation, though, really. Possibly one could interpret the NO result as meaning “We wanted change, but this wasn’t the right change”: one positive thing I saw in recently YouGov polls was that the data showed a large number of those in the ‘No’ camp sounding positive about ‘PR’, although to be fair I don’t think it was made clear what ‘PR’ might mean in practice. Even if people do indeed want PR, I don’t see how – given the NO vote and the prevailing electoral conditions – it can be brought about. The prevailing system tends to favour a government comprised of those who don’t want change.
Regardless of the actual result, I should point out that campaigning from both the “No to AV” and “Yes to AV” camps was unimpressive. Campaigning was very vicious from NO, particularly regarding personal attacks on Nick Clegg and with its distribution of lies about AV and other misleading material. Equally, from YES we had some rather vague “fairer votes” campaign and a degree of hyperbole about the MPs’ expenses scandal, which is unrelated to the voting system.
In summary, a disappointment, but we must move on. I joined the Electoral Reform Society earlier in the year, because I’m interested in supporting reform in future, but I promise I’ll shut up about all this for a while, now. 😉