Handling the ‘NO DEMAND FOR REFORM’ claim

Quoting the AV-Referendum of 2011 is the easiest way for front-line media interviewers to block discussion of electoral reform.

This is a serious impediment to getting positive messages over to the public about PR. Electoral reform is discussed very rarely in mainstream media so any opportunities are precious. You will find a short video on our Facebook page called: Handling the false claim there is no demand for UK electoral reform.

The exchange is usually introduced by the reformer who makes a point about the FPTP system being unrepresentative and unfair. The interviewer typically responds quoting AV2011 and affirming it was rejected by the British people. The reformer nearly always tries to protest the truth, that it was never a true referendum for PR. The presenters know this very well but still cut things short by arguing it would have been a staging post in the right direction for something better…

In other words, the reformer is very easily made to seem on the defensive. A change of tactic is necessary and it can do no harm here to try and turn the tables by going on the attack.

So instead of going down the AV is not PR line, we should say that AV2011 was a mistake. It should never have happened. It was the Lib-Dem leadership’s fault that it went ahead at all.

It was a strategic blunder of huge proportions. There was no co-ordinated campaign and there was no widespread consultation or unity among potential partners. There was no coherent message, no flag flying* to get behind and the whole episode has been described as bad-tempered and ill-informed. It was held on the same day as local elections, renowned for low turn-outs, in many areas of England and sure enough the turnout was 42%.

A spade should be called a spade: the blame lies squarely with the Liberal-Democrat leadership. They wanted to chalk up something concrete to show for their Coalition status. On a hope and a prayer what they did was divert potentially more constructive pressure for electoral reform onto the sidelines, while providing enough ammunition to the status quo to last a generation.

There are several strands of evidence backing up the strategic naivety of the Lib-Dem leadership. Bear in mind that two of their party’s highest profile, flagship policies were electoral reform and Europe.

  • From the moment they decided to enter Coalition with the Tories, they made a number of bad judgements, the one mostly remembered being on tuition fees.

  • They demanded nothing on the EU – for example, a Minister for the EU or increased dissemination of positive aspects of EU membership.

  • Even if they thought they had a chance of winning it, they agreed to far too early a date for AV2011 which left no time for the necessary preparation and organisation referred to above.

  • The coalition was an opportunity to showcase a ‘PR-style alternative’ and demonstrate government need not resemble the fears FPTP advocates had always stoked up. The Lib-Dem leadership failed comprehensively – almost as if they did not grasp that the opportunity was a real one.

We should not attach blame to Liberal-Democrat voters. They made their feelings known in 2015 when support fell from an impressive 6.8m in 2010 all the way down to 2.4m.

The Liberal-Democrat legacy then is, if anything, a more tarnished image for PR and, more concretely, one year after the Coalition, a vote to exit from the EU.

Yet Mr Clegg when interviewed still convinces himself and tries to convince us that they did a great job of holding down the Tories. Denial is not helpful when looking for a way to topple the overbearing edifice that is AV2011. Parties to a future campaign for electoral reform must confess and agree that it was a big strategic blunder. The party to blame must take it on the chin and move on. It will be better for them and all the more condusive to the more assertive, positive and modern case for electoral reform this website promotes.

*It’s worth noting that the Remain campaign were much criticised for printing and distributing to every household a  leaflet containing its arguments for staying in the EU. Despite the fact that each full facing page in the document was a glossy, colour photograph, not a single image of the EU flag was visible (nor at any other time in the campaign as far as we recall). A grave strategic error?

2017 Chart

This chart shows the pattern of voting in the UK election general election held on June 8th 2017.

Compared with the charts for the previous four elections this century, for 2001, 2005, 2010 and 2015, you will see an established pattern has been broken. The numbers voting for Labour and Tory showed big increases. The other, smaller parties fared poorly, losing not far short of half their support. Much of this was explained by the decline in the votes for the Liberal-Democrats, UKIP and SNP.

Looking more closely at the vote for Labour, the number of people voting for them increased by an astonishing 37%. By reporting the change in vote share, 10%, the mainstream media tend to obscure the true extent of the change.

As for the Tories, they also increased their vote numbers impressively, by 20%. There are good reasons to believe that many of the 2.3m people this represents were made up of returning UKIP-Brexiteers and those defecting from SNP in Scotland. The following table with the statistical breakdown of the results can be compared with the tables for previous elections.

This was a strange election called for manipulative reasons and originally presented as a mandate for Brexit consolidation. In this sense a one-off, it is too early to draw the conclusion that it marks a permanent shift to new voting patterns. It suits spokespersons for Labour and Tory to insist that we have seen a massive return to two-party politics.

But what makes all the difference is seats held in parliament. To get to the true picture we have to go deeper. Between 2001 and 2015 the average hold on seats by Labour and Tory combined was 86.75%. This time the two parties have grabbed 89.1% which is admittedly an increase – but only of 2.35% above the average. That amounts to 15 seats more in a 650 seat parliament. If that signifies a ‘massive return to two-party politics’ what did we have before?