John Harris

Journalist & Author

After the AV referendum: What next for electoral reform? | John Harris

The prospects are bleak. But I still believe many of the failures of British politics are down to our creaking voting system

“Once David Cameron moved in the way he did,” a senior Liberal Democrat told the Guardian on Thursday, “the polls moved. It was unstoppable.”

Well, perhaps. Certainly, along with the right-wing press, (lest we forget) the big trade unions and the more Neanderthal aspects of the Labour party, loud backing from the Tory leadership made the anti-AV camp some foe to beat.

But we could also look at the defeat from another angle. The great opening up of the gap between the yes and no campaigns also coincided with the point at which senior Lib Dems decisively got involved, and tried to turn their backing for the change into a badge of difference vis-à-vis their coalition partners. I can well remember Gordon Brown’s deathbed conversion to the alternative vote prompting mutterings that he was the last person you’d want to back any campaign for electoral reform, and the same surely applied to Nick Clegg, to the power of 10.

As is often the case, I can do without the pompous fury of Paddy Ashdown: the Lib Dems should shoulder a lot of the blame for AV’s demise, largely because they were toxic to start with, but partly because they occasionally ended up backing reform in almost as stagey and shrill a way as its opponents, and doubtless turned off thousands in the process. Chris Huhne extending Godwin’s law into the campaign via his “Goebbels” moment springs to mind.

I thought it wasn’t supposed to be like this, at all.

Back in November 2010, the Yes to fairer votes chair Katie Ghose said this:

“The campaign will be completely different from anything that has gone before. We have simply got to organise from the grassroots up.”

A month later, the Guardian reported on a Downing Street press conference in which Clegg “said that the ‘Yes to fairer votes’ campaign should be led by voters not politicians”, and hoped that the case for reform would be “made particularly by people outside politics who want politicians to be made accountable to them.” The vision, as far as I could tell, was of the spirit of the “purple people” demo that followed last year’s election result being rolled out all over the country.

That happened, to a limited extent. But by the campaign’s last stretch, the national stage was crowded with politicians trying to sell voters something they said would be bad news for politicians themselves, which is surely the dictionary definition of a questionable pitch. In Friday’s Guardian, Timothy Garton-Ash bemoaned the yes campaign’s failure to capture the public mood, and wrote this:

“It is amazing how the anger at the dysfunctional, corrupt old politics of Westminster, which exploded in 2009 over the issue of MPs’ expenses, seems to have evaporated.”

Not so, and it’s precisely that lingering fury and scepticism that played some role in doing for the Yes campaign’s chances: if you’re trying to harness momentum for a change to the political system, you’d be well advised to keep politicians’ voices to a minimum.

So there we are: a fairly miserable little compromise, an equally miserable defeat, a very crafty prime minister, and arguably the greatest Lib Dem failure of all. It really is remarkable: I’ve just scanned the district-by-district results, and so far there are precious few parts of the UK where the yes campaign had a prayer (though hats off to Lambeth, Camden, Islington, Haringey, Glasgow Kelvin and Cambridge). Yes: AV is a preferable system to FPTP, and the usual voices were just as dastardly as you’d expect them to be, but that’s really no excuse. And now there comes the redrawing of all those constituencies; to say that the Tories are currently winning is an almost cosmic understatement.

And what of the future for electoral reform? Bleak, undoubtedly, though like plenty of people, my belief that so many of the failures of British politics are down to our creaking voting system remains as strong as ever. Knowing that that might be it for a lifetime, I guess people of like mind should do what should always have been done: clearly set out the goal (the single transferable vote in multimember constituencies, always the only satisfactory option) and stick to it, try to amass the right collection of voices and organisations (Eddie Izzard and Colin Firth were not it, I’d wager), understand that any convincing moves will originate well beyond Westminster, and make the arguments again, and again, and again.

We all know the drill. Why are our politics eternally in thrall to a somewhat strange and very small number of people who want great public services but wince at the requisite taxes? Why no traction for urgent issues like social housing and rights at work? What are we doing privileging Mondeo man and Worcester woman? Why Milton Keynes and Harlow, but not Pontypridd and Rotherham? Why bother voting Labour in Camberley, or Tory in Llanelli? Why the tyranny of a cynically constructed centre ground that ignores just as many people on the right as it does on the left?

The questions linger, and AV was never any kind of truly convincing answer, which leaves us with a simple enough story: a very British refusal to embrace a change, compounded by an equally British failure to convince people otherwise, whereby “progressive” forces made an array of the usual mistakes. All we can do, inevitably, is learn – which probably sounds as washed-out as I currently feel. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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