I have a confession to make. I might be a Liberal Democrat, but electoral reform is not an issue that gets me really excited. It’s not that I don’t believe in it. Far from it. I think electoral or more precisely political reform, is hugely important and I have strong opinions on it. It’s just that other political issues are the ones I get the most animated about. Like pretty much all Lib Dems though, it is just one of the issues that makes me a party supporter, and contrary to what some people assume about Lib Dem members it’s one of the reasons I am a Lib Dem and it’s not because I’m a Lib Dem that I believe in it. I suppose that lack of excitement about it is one of the reasons why I hadn’t thought about joining the Electoral Reform Society before. But the Alternative Vote referendum result was one of the reasons why I decided to join fairly recently.
There’s no point me going over here all the reasons why I think the Yes campaign failed as there’s been some pretty illuminating articles about this already, including this damning report from Andy May who worked on the campaign. But from my personal point of view as someone who wasn’t closely involved but tried to do his bit to support it, a few things stand out as worth saying:
- There was almost no on the ground campaign that touched voters in their homes and the little there was only existed because of Lib Dem grassroots activists demanding leaflets and artwork. I delivered a lot of Yes leaflets during the campaign (whether the content was effective is a different issue), but that was all I saw except for the Yes ‘freepost’ which arrived three days after the No freepost and three days after my postal vote had arrived.
- The failure to actually get all people on the Yes side to campaign actively in support. Some Lib Dems weren’t enthused that much because it wasn’t proportional representation but campaigned anyway as it was the best reform we were likely to get anytime soon. However, Yes supporters in both Labour and the Conservatives were conspicuous by their absence and preferred party political advantage over winning a referendum on something they believed in. For example, my local Labour MP Paul Blomfield was actually a supporter of the Yes campaign and yet he had a very low profile on the issue within the constituency. He did write an article in support and help at a stall, but the help was limited which was a shame when he could have carried a certain amount of local support with him for the campaign. I understand this was a national Labour Party decision. But far worse than not giving much help was that leaflets went out from the Labour party in his constituency telling people that the Lib Dems are now so bad that they want to rig the electoral system to help them stay in power. If he disagreed with his local party on the Alternative Vote I would have thought he should at least have got the party’s leaflets to be neutral on the issue.
- From what I’d heard about the media campaign I expected quite a few endorsements of the Yes campaign in the national press, including some newspapers that weren’t obvious Yes supporters. In the end most of these never materialised. Whether that was because the newspapers changed their minds or we were misled I don’t know, which could show either naivety or incompetence.
- On a more positive note, I thought the Yes campaign did do a few good high profile stunts, such as a flash mob event at Sheffield Station and the polling day was very effective with attempts at getting people to vote and having little Yes ‘flags’ stuck in to the grass verges of roundabouts. These may have helped damage the Lib Dem council election vote, by bringing out Yes voters who then voted against the Lib Dems, but they probably helped do the job they were intended to do which is bring out some extra Yes supporters too. Sheffield actually had the highest percentage voting Yes in Yorkshire and so maybe it was a localised success.
So to the Electoral Reform Society (ERS). It is right that the mistakes made in the referendum cannot all be blamed on ERS, far from it. But they were the lead organisation in the campaign and seconded all their staff and so they do bear some responsibility. But far more important to me now is that given the failure of the referendum campaign we need an active campaigning organisation gathering together all those people enthused about electoral reform to keep campaigning. It’s very tempting to assume that now the referendum has failed to just say that’s it and forget all about the issue because we don’t expect another referendum within the next 20 years at least. But those people who do support electoral reform have to keep the issue in the public eye and keep explaining why it’s important, and perhaps more importantly bring together people who support electoral reform to work together to build an enthusiastic and interesting campaigning organisation that people want to be part of. The biggest reason I haven’t joined ERS in the past was because it came across as a staid organisation that was more interested in abstract discussion about the merits of electoral reform rather than an organisation that was creating exciting campaigns to actually campaign for it.
The closing date for voting in the ERS council elections is on Friday this week and my votes have gone in. It’s well known now that there is a slate that is seeking to get elected with the express purpose of reforming the way ERS works to create the very thing that I’ve been wanting – an active campaigning organisation. What’s good about this slate is that it includes people from all parties and none as well as people who are new to campaigning but enthused by the referendum campaign and people with years of campaigning know how but left thoroughly depressed by the way the referendum campaign operated. The person who sums it up for me is John Ault who wrote on his blog the reasons why the slate exists and why he is standing. I admit to being personal friends with John, but I also know that he has the professional expertise that an organisation like ERS could do with. But he isn’t the only person standing for ERS council with these skills and so if you have a vote please use it wisely to create a campaign for electoral reform that we can all be proud of.