Where next on electoral reform?

There are already plenty of post-mortems on the AV referendum result. I don’t propose to add much to that growing body of discussion. In fact, Mark Thompson has already said most of what I would want to say on the topic. And he’s said it better. Not for the first time. The one comment I wanted to add is that it is extraordinary how widely it is being reported that the referendum result indicates the British people have rejected electoral reform.

What’s interesting is precisely where we go next.

We can all agree that the electorate voting No to AV places the prospect of electoral reform on the back burner for a while. But to conclude that the majority have therefore rejected reform and are happy with FPTP is simply implausible.

Why did people vote No? We can all no doubt think of several reasons:

  • Conservatives (and conservatives) do not wish to see a venerable system updated for a more pluralist society.
  • Some bought the egregious untruths of the No campaign and voted against for reasons such as AV being ‘very expensive’.
  • Some wanted to punish the Coalition for their cuts and/or the Liberal Democrats for their perceived betrayal.
  • Some wanted a more proportional system and felt that there was no point moving to AV.

We have, as yet, no real idea of how the No vote breaks down between these categories.

Personally I think that pro-PR voters who weren’t prepared to support a move to AV were taking the wrong strategy. Clearly it played a part in the result. Yesterday, for example, I had a ‘warm’ discussion with a taxi driver, who had voted No for that reason. It was not possible to demonstrate support for a very modest change. The idea that the outcome would have been different if it had been a straight choice between FPTP and an even more radical change is, in my view, frankly laughable.

If all No voters are in the first category on my list then it is probably true that electoral reform has been kicked well into the long grass, if not taken off the agenda entirely. The British electorate is fundamentally – and possibly irrationally – conservative.

But I don’t think that is the situation. If it were the case then the early opinion polls shouldn’t have shown the Yes vote a long way ahead. They should have shown consistent opposition. The early polls suggested that there was some momentum for change, albeit with a lot of people undecided. That momentum dissipated.

The subsequent reversal of that majority in favour of change demonstrates that the No campaign was very effective. It was a campaign based on stoking up fears of extremists, of extravagance, and of routine betrayals by perfidious politicians. It may have been complete nonsense, but it was effective nonsense. Certainly more effective than anything the Yes campaign could offer. And quite a bit of that was equally nonsensical. If this is a key reason for the outcome then without better regulation of referendum campaigning – or delivery of electoral reform through a different route – then one might expect a similar result in any future exercise. This is a point well made by Mark Thompson.

If the key problem was that electoral reform became too heavily enmeshed with the contemporary political agenda  then any future campaign on electoral reform would have to be more clearly non-party political than this campaign has been.

There is a problem with that. Electoral reform is a bit of a specialist interest. If you try to make it non-party political – celebrities, sportspeople – it is fronted by people who are not steeped in the arguments and are not able to sell it very well. If it is fronted by people who understand the issues well and can advocate effectively on behalf of their preferred system then it ends up being party political.

An alternative option for a referendum is for the reform agenda to be seen to be driven by the Labour party. For it to be politically driven it needs to be driven by a party that is modernising governance apparently against its own self-interest. That would give some scope for rebutting accusations that would no doubt be forthcoming. It is also, of course, highly unlikely. It requires thinking beyond party and pursuing better democratic practice. The Liberal Democrats were not motivated by self-interest. But it was easy for the No campaign to construct the case as if they were.

However, electoral reform is going to have a greater chance of succeeding if it moved away from this type of referendum as the vehicle for achieving the goal.

For those who are committed to the need for electoral reform there already plenty of ideas circulating about alternative – and smarter – strategies that might stand a chance not only of getting the issue back on the agenda but also increasing the chances that the electorate will embrace change. So there is cause for hope.

While the more conservative may declare that this issue has now been put to bed, I don’t think it will go away. When we look at recently established democratic systems, we see that they typically use some form of more proportional system. The architects of such systems recognise that FPTP is not a sensible electoral system for a diverse modern society. And politicians of all political complexions – including Conservatives – in many parts of the UK work within such systems. I’m sure if we were now starting from scratch with the system for elections to Westminster we wouldn’t choose FPTP.

The question is when another window of opportunity will open to get the issue back on the political agenda.

Windows of opportunity for policy change can open because outside events intervene. A crisis opens up the possibility for radical change. But they can also be opened through the actions of political actors. Do advocates of reform know which levers to pull to open the window?

The barriers to reform have just got higher. The AV referendum has demonstrated more clearly than ever the range of conditions that need to be just right before a bid for reform is likely to succeed. So there needs to be a more sophisticated strategy to lay the groundwork for the next attempt. A much broader coalition for change is needed.

It strikes me that it might be an idea to look north of the border. Alex Salmond has been playing the longest of long political games. One of the first things that he did on Friday morning when he realised that the SNP were closing in on a majority in the Scottish Parliament was declare that there would be a referendum towards the end of the current term. Not as soon as possible. He knows that he still has a lot of work to do to prepare the ground to have any chance of delivering a yes vote on independence. And he is one of the canniest politicians there is. I’m sure there are lessons to learn from keeping an eye on Mr Salmond’s game plan.

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