The Yes to AV campaign was annihilated because it was mired in dishonesty

The Yes to AV campaign was run by people who didn't really believe in their product. No wonder 68 percent rejected them.

The battle bus: NO to AV campaigners tour Westminster
The Commentator
On 7 May 2011 11:48

Talk about an emphatic result. Thursday's referendum on changing Britain's electoral system to the Alternative Vote model delivered just 32 percent in favour with 68 percent against. When a campaign for change can't even energise a third of the voters, ultimately there’s only one thing to say – it was a total flop.

To be fair, no-one in the Yes camp is claiming otherwise. But that shouldn’t be the end of the matter. The Commentator supports electoral and constitutional reform -- as we noted last week, the last Labour government achieved 55 percent of the parliamentary seats on the back of 35.2 percent of the popular vote  -- and although AV was the wrong way to go we should be careful not to throw out the reformist baby with the AV bath water.

The first thing we need to do is understand why the AV campaign failed so spectacularly. There is no real mystery here: it was led by people who simply didn’t believe in it. Nick Clegg’s endlessly repeated depiction of AV as a “miserable little compromise” was about as damning for brand loyalty as Gerald Ratner’s description of his jewellery company’s products as “total crap”. But at least, in this instance, Clegg was telling the truth.

The overwhelming majority of the AV campaigners only ever saw the system they were trying to sell the voters as a poor second best to the proportional representation model they really wanted.

It’s like a sales rep for Channel No. 5 telling the punters his perfume doesn’t really smell as good as it ought to but they should buy it anyway because the Giorgio Armani they’d be much better off with is out of stock. You wouldn’t fall on the floor with amazement if you heard the campaign had been less than a resounding success.

The charge by the Yes camp that their opponents were running a dishonest campaign was nothing more than a case of projection. Dishonesty was at the heart of their own campaign and they were so aware of it they couldn’t help themselves from blasting the accusation at everyone who got in their way.

Much the same applied to the charge their opponents were playing dirty. Nobody walks away from this with clean hands, but the dirtiest tactics were played by the Yes camp. Recall Chris Huhne’s comparison of Conservative Party chair Baroness Warsi with Joseph Geobbels? It’s not easy to sustain a credible case that your opponents are engaged in gutter politics if you yourself are smearing them as high level colleagues of Adolf Hitler.

The Yes campaign was a joke, and most of the British people saw it that way.

Nonetheless, we are still left with an electoral and constitutional set-up that urgently needs reform. The fact that we have an upper house of parliament dominated largely by cronies of the main political parties or, worse, by people who have paid cash for their seats in our legislature via party donations is an enduring disgrace.

We would look unfavourably on such practices if they took place in Nigeria. 21stcentury Britain can surely do better. The Lords must quickly be democratised, possibly via a version of proportional representation so as to ensure a fair deal for those whom the current system excludes in elections to the lower house.

And there is plenty that can still be done with the voting system for the Commons. For now, first past the post is here to stay. After such a clear result last week, it is off the agenda for a generation. But there is plenty that can be done to ensure that far more constituencies are genuinely contested and far fewer remain as safe seats.

We should consider the possibility of reducing the number of MPs and increasing the size of constituencies. Multi-member constituencies might also be an option.

Here at The Commentator, we are open minded. What we need is an intelligent debate between cool headed people offering credible arguments we can sift and then choose from.

In that sense at least, the AV campaign was helpful. It showed everyone exactly what not to do if you’re advancing a case for reform.

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