The question of electoral reform is now closed for a generation. Anyone who disagrees with this statement is part of the much wider problem that the democracy movement has.
The movement likes to believe that it listens and that it represents “the people”, but, generally, what that has meant in my experience is that people who agree with the aims of the movement get a hearing as to how their aims might be achieved, while those who question the priorities of the reformers are dismissed as dinosaurs and not engaged with to understand their reticence. And while the movement certainly represents some of “the people”, who deserve a voice as much as anyone else, the inability to grow from a niche to a mass movement demonstrates clearly that it is not the voice of all the people.
At the moment, the blame game is moving quickly. So far we have the mendacious No campaign, the toxicity of the Lib Dems and particularly the childish tantrums of Chris Huhne, the intervention of the prime minister and the split in the Labour party. All of which did – of course – play a part in why the Yes campaign failed. But for my money, the biggest reason the campaign failed is because it was run by people who don’t know the electorate and don’t understand what they want and what they fear.
Most of my friends voted yes to AV (full disclosure, I didn’t) but among them I couldn’t find a single one with a good word to say about the Yes campaign. If even your strongest followers think you’re getting it so wrong and you aren’t listening to them, you have a real issue and you need to think very hard about how you deal with that.
If the democracy movement want to make real and positive changes to the impact of democracy on people’s lives and the engagement people have with the process, they need to do three things.
First I would urge them to take a year off and spend it getting their own house in order. While the campaign for fairer votes was made up of many disparate organisations, those who were at its heart – like Unlock Democracy, the Joseph Rowntree reform trust and the electoral reform society – need to get an external party to look properly at why they are failing to reach beyond their metropolitan support base. They need to look at absolutely every aspect of their organisations and campaigning, from the language they use to their campaigning methods, from their leadership to their relationships with their supporters. I suspect the results will be extremely uncomfortable, but should also be fully digested and changes implemented. The failure of this campaign shows the desperate need for the movement to get its house in order. This will take time, but is essential and unless they take the time to do this nothing else will be achieved.
Second, they need to stop being an anti-politics movement. Most of the thrust of the campaign was about teaching politicians a lesson and making them work harder. It was negative and that doesn’t really work when you’re campaigning for something. The No campaign had by far the easier job in that respect. But in truth, electoral reform is about improving political engagement which may or may not have a knock on effect on the behaviour of politicians. The honest and hard truth is that anyone who wants to talk about political or electoral reform is already politically engaged. They may be engaged through anger at politicians, but they are engaged. By being anti-politics you denigrate that which you want to improve, which is a confusing and confused message. It’s also mendacious which made fighting the No to AV’s baby and soldier posters harder, because frankly you all looked as bad as each other.
My final point is the most important and the most overlooked: There has been far too much focus on how we vote and far too little on if we vote. Whole swathes of the country, and usually those with the most to lose, are disenfranchising themselves by disengaging from the political process. Turnouts are dropping year after year after year. Electoral reform has been offered (rather unconvincingly in my opinion) as a solution to this, but in Scotland they have PR for Holyrood elections and turnout in this election varied from 34.5% in Glasgow Provan to only as high as 62.8% in East Renfrewshire. Given that a change in the voting system is now dead in the water for a generation, perhaps the best outcome of all would be a shift from the democracy movement away from procedural matters that obsess those who already vote, back to a focus on the cultural factors that stop those who don’t.
What happened last Thursday was a massive setback for the democracy movement. This is a dangerous time for them. They could retreat further into their own self-reinforcing bubble, blaming everyone else for their loss, but they could take this loss and use it as a springboard for the rejuvenation the movement has so clearly needed for so long. As democrats, they should listen to the message the people have given them before it’s too late.
This piece forst appeared at Labour Uncut.