Saturday, September 17, 2011


Never Mention “STV” Again

The Liberal Democrat Conference opens today in Birmingham with perhaps the most depressing talking shop ever put on a Lib Dem Agenda. It’s the consultative session for the “May 2011 Election Review”: a big drop in the popular vote; a major setback on local councils; a disaster in Scotland; a total and utter thrashing in the AV referendum. And it’s the last that looks the most hopeless. Is electoral reform finished for good, or at least for a generation? Instead of endlessly debating what went wrong, there’s one major change we can make right now to improve things next time: never mention “STV” again. But I don’t mean running scared – I mean widening our appeal. Because if we’ve learned one thing, it’s that an electoral ‘reform’ campaign that only appeals to Liberal Democrats is stuffed, whether it’s this Spring’s or in a decade or two’s time.

I’m passionately committed to the system called the Single Transferable Vote. No system is perfect but, for me, it has two massive advantages. It’s broadly proportional – which means it’s fair to parties, and means that the House of Commons is broadly in line with people’s votes across the country. And it gives voters more power to choose the candidates who win – when every other system gives all the power to the parties. But I’m a political beast, and most people aren’t. Let’s not kid ourselves: a system where you choose different candidates in order of preference was obliterated this year, and it would be easy to attack STV as complicated and weird in just the same way (as Mark Thompson’s excellent if depressing article Outline of a No2STV Campaign illustrated). If there had been an STV referendum this year, it too would have been thrashed. And no proponents of STV have come up with anything like an answer save ‘campaign harder’. That’s necessary – but it’s not good enough.

Where AV Went Wrong (and more of AV’s greatest mistakes)

There’s still time, if you want to, to get your answers in to the Liberal Democrats’ Campaigns and Communications Committee’s consultation on the elections and the referendum. It’s already made up its mind on four key reasons for AV’s failure: But it’s really just looking mournfully at the stable door, and not wondering why the horse bolted. Similarly, the Electoral Reform Society has just elected a mostly new “Reform Slate” in reaction to the terrible result, but without making decisions on how to improve the message. And the aftermath for the victorious other side is that opponents of any kind of electoral reform, shameless conservatives in Labour and Tories alike, are claiming this was a vote against proportional representation, despite AV being often less proportional than “First Past the Post” (making the self-styled ‘No to AV, Yes to PR’ useful idiots look stupider than ever; hard to believe, isn’t it, that David Owen could have a catastrophic failure of political judgement).

The one good thing that came out of this year’s débâcle (other than establishing a grassroots movement for electoral reform, which is now largely dispersed and demoralised) is that we can learn how not to do it next time.

You know the story. The “No” campaign was full of lies. But it was brutally effective. They identified issues that Labour voters in particular wouldn’t like about AV – “Costly, Complicated, Clegg” – and pushed them hard. The Conservatives, always assumed to be anti-reform, as they have been for every reform in history from votes for ordinary people to votes for women, outdid themselves by at the same time using their party slogan “Working together in the national interest” to say how good it was that they were in coalition, and pouring wads of cash into vicious attacks on the Liberal Democrats for being in coalition and attacking the very idea of coalition to make AV scary. A finer example of saying one thing in one place and another elsewhere has surely never been seen. And perhaps most importantly, they made the political weather. It didn’t matter if what they said was truth or lie – they got in first. Almost every issue was then debated on ground set by the “No” campaign. The “Yes” campaign’s wider base of grassroots campaigners was completely let down by a disastrously faltering “air war”, and was simply overwhelmed by messages that they didn’t have the people or cash to counter.

Attack “First Past the Post”

So there are two key lessons to learn for ‘next time’, whenever it may come.The first is the lesson of the electoral mechanics, and that’s one for the long term: it can be planned for, but only really put into operation when the time comes. For what it’s worth, though, here are a few markers we must learn for taking the fight to “First Past the Post”:
Time For British Proportional Representation

But the biggest lesson can – and must – be implemented as soon as possible, and it’s not about campaign mechanics, but about principles. If you’re involved in policymaking with the Liberal Democrats or with the Electoral Reform Society, here’s what you can do today, rather than in ten years’ time: never mention “STV” again.

Who, other than a political junkie, is going to get enthused about a set of initials? And when you expand it into the Single Transferable Vote and explain about transfers, people’s eyes are no less likely to glaze over. Yes, we’ll have to find a clearer, simpler way to explain how it works – but the name we use for it just makes it seem all about the mechanics. And that’s always going to be a loser. We’ve feebly addressed that by talking about “Fair Votes” – but that doesn’t appear on the ballot paper (you might say it’s a loaded term; when calling the current system “First Past the Post” is such a lie that it literally has no winning post, loaded terms are hardly new!), and we all saw how trying to refer to AV as the even feebler “Fairer Votes” failed.

The next campaign must be between “First Past the Post” and “British Proportional Representation”. Say no to the emulsified high-fat offal tube – call a sausage a sausage, and call our favourite system British Proportional Representation.

This is the ‘director’s cut’ of an article published earlier on Liberal Democrat Voice, written to follow this morning’s depressing consultation session and Simon McGrath’s article earlier today on election results within the Electoral Reform Society.

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Mat and I have been saying this for some time. Glad to have our ideas stolen by someone so lovely; hope you win the Botty tonight too ;)
Have you? Goodness. I missed that. Thank you, and synchronicity rather than theft!

Good luck to you at the BOTTYs as well ;)
Perhaps the biggest reason why the “No” campaign won this year is that they had an enemy.
I agree - the tactics should be to attack FPTP. I would go further - it should focus on the outcome of FPTP, which leads to unfairness and many political ills, and not on the process, which is well understood, and liked for its simplicity.

The referendum should be a multi stage process, the first stage being about whether or not to keep the existing system, again focussing the debate on FPTP.

Re-branding STV isn’t the answer and would be a gift to the other side. It’s going to be a long haul, so there is no point in looking for short cuts. The lessons from the AV campaign put the shortcomings of STV into sharp focus.

The introduction of DPR Voting would involve only the smallest change to our current electoral system. It would preserve the relationship between MPs and their constituents on the basis of a method of constituency election which is familiar. DPR Voting would achieve greater equality for the voter, greater voter choice, and a significant increase in proportionality at minimum cost and disruption. It could be simply and powerfully presented to the electorate as a fairer electoral system for Westminster.
Proportional Representation is a great idea. I'd like to see it implemented in the USA.

However, I can see why some have reservations about STV.

For one thing, I believe that PR needs to be used in the right context, and it may be that the structure of the British Parliament needs adjustment before PR will fit into that context.

I've developed my own PR method that uses a ratings ballot but gives broadly similar results. You may be interested in playing with it.

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