Why was the electoral reform referendum lost?

A polling station in London on referendum day

The referendum on the introduction of the Alternative Vote (AV) on 5 May was lost by 68 per cent to 32 per cent.  This is a crushing defeat.  What went wrong for the Yes campaign?

The explanation can be divided into three possible families of reasons.

1. AV as an electoral system is not sellable in any circumstances

According to the argument that it violates the principle of one person one vote, AV could never be accepted by a democratically-minded people.  However, that argument is false, and AV is used without controversy in Australia, which, if it is not a democratically-minded country, should be thrown out of the Commonwealth.  So, if AV could have been sold, why was it unsuccessful on this occasion?

2. AV was not sellable in these circumstances

Even if AV could in principle have been sold to the British people, I think that now was not the time to do it.  This is for four reasons.

First, the credibility of the Liberal Democrats as advocates of PR had been reduced, first by the controversy over student tuition fees and also by their own views of AV: Nick Clegg had dismissed it before the election as a “miserable little compromise”

Secondly, Labour was split.  Despite having fought on a manifesto in favour of AV, more than half of Labour MPs supported the No campaign.  Does this say more about Ed Miliband’s Labour party being unable to keep a promise or Gordon Brown’s Labour party making a promise it was unable or unwilling to keep?

Thirdly, the result of the 2010 general election was not the clear launch pad for a change to the election system that it might have been.  During the campaign, at the height of Cleggmania, there was a real prospect that the Liberal Democrats would overtake Labour in the popular vote but not in seats.  The unfairness of that outcome would have laid out the absurdity of the current system for all to see.  But that is not how things turned out.

In the actual vote, the party with the most votes got the most seats, the party with the second most votes got the second most seats, and the party that came third came third.  This was not the best background against which to try and change the electoral system.

And lastly, the proposal for AV (and a referendum on it) emerged not from an open, public process but from a behind closed door negotiation among party politicians seeking party advantage.  It did not originate from a substantial, autonomous and effective non-party campaign.  This is not the way to introduce proposals that are intended to change the culture of politics.

3. AV could have been sold but the campaign was done poorly

There has been a lot of commentary on the technicalities of the Yes campaign, how it worked and why it failed.  We won’t duplicate it here, but here are some examples on Quaequam Blog, Liberal Vision, and Next Left.  It is argued that there was a series of errors in the messages, the targeting and the spokespeople, and that a different campaign could have been run instead.

There are two further points, which are worth spelling out because of their broader implications.

First, it wasn’t a fair fight.  People on the Yes side complained long and hard that the No campaign fought dirty.  It may well have done, but what matters is not dirtiness but rule-breaking, and there were few rules.  For example, political advertising is expressly excluded from the remit of advertising regulation, and there was no referendum equivalent of the law that forbids parliamentary candidates from telling lies about their opponents in a general election.

The timing of the referendum, only a few days after the royal wedding, also cannot have helped.  And the No campaign is reported to have received a lot of financial support which it is not obliged to declare.

But before the complaints get louder, the Yes side needs to remember that it wrote the rules.  The referendum was created by an act of parliament, into which more safeguards could have been written.  (There was a strong lobby to change the date, for example, which the government resisted.)  If the ground for the referendum was not prepared properly, its proponents have only themselves to blame.

And secondly, there is the Tolstoy problem.  His great novel “Anna Karenina” opens with the observation that:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

To succeed in a referendum, there has to be a consistent story behind the Yes campaign.  No voters, on the other hand, can vote No for many different and mutually contradictory reasons: all that matters is that they do not agree with the reason for voting Yes.  Arguments were put against AV both that it was like PR (David Starkey) and that it was not like PR (Paul Anderson).  These two arguments cannot both be true, but it does not matter because a voter only needs to be persuaded by one of them.  (And who, other than your blogger, has read both David Starkey and Paul Anderson anyway?)

Potential Yes voters were told both that AV would put voters in the driving seat rather than politicians, and that it would give the country permanent centre-left government.  “A vote for AV is a vote for Labour’s values”, said Ben Bradshaw: what about voters who do not share Labour’s values?

A Yes campaign does not need identical messages for all voters, but the messages it uses need to be mutually compatible, a phenomenon observed in the French referendum on the constitutional treaty in 2005.  In the absence of such coherence, the Yes campaign will be weakened.

The defeat of AV on 5 May 2011 makes it unlikely that there will be a further referendum on electoral reform for some considerable time to come, but it is still worth being interested in the conduct of referendums.  The government’s European Union bill envisages referendums on future treaty changes that pool more sovereignty (according to its rather uneven definition of how sovereignty is pooled within the EU).  Obviously, the current government also intends that there shouldn’t be any further pooling of sovereignty in future, but they can’t guarantee that.  Should there be further referendums on European issues (or on anything else), these lessons need to be learned.

About the Author