Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Why the Bella referendum campaign should focus on the SNP in the first instance

Bella Caledonia were kind enough to send me an email yesterday alerting me to their campaign to turn the AV referendum into an unofficial independence vote, and Eric Falconer also asked for my thoughts about it on a previous thread. I may as well put my cards on the table straight away - I signed up to the 'Yes to Fairer Votes' campaign a few weeks ago, and as things stand I intend to vote Yes in May. I will do so with minimal enthusiasm, because I think AV represents an absolutely trifling improvement on the current system. But I've been a supporter of electoral reform for as long as I've been a supporter of independence (slightly longer, come to think of it), and I've increasingly realised that I'd find it psychologically very difficult to stand on the sidelines in a vote like this, knowing - or at least strongly suspecting - the devastating effect a 'No' would have on hopes for future progress. Make no mistake, the Lib Dems have put us in the trap that ensures a rubbish majoritarian system is certain to "win" this referendum, and it's nothing short of outrageous that they've done so - but that just makes it all the more important that others get stuck into the campaign, and not merely win a Yes vote, but also win the 'battle of the narrative', ie. by defining in the public consciousness what a Yes vote would actually mean. We can't permit it to be said that AV represents - to coin a phrase - the settled will of the electorate. It must instead be clear that many people are consciously voting for a very small first step, which they're impatient to see built on as a matter of urgency.

There is, however, a 'but' here. Plainly independence is a far greater prize, so if I felt there was a chance that the spoilt ballot campign was likely to have a significant impact, I'd support it. The difficulty is that I simply can't think of a single campaign of this sort that has ever worked in the UK - it's almost impossibly difficult to persuade people to 'think outside the box' in sufficient numbers. And to make a serious impact, the numbers would have to be huge. It goes without saying that no mass-circulation newspaper is likely to back the campaign (or even to lend much coverage to it), so it seems to me the only hope is an official endorsement from the SNP. Without that, I think Jeff Breslin has hit the nail on the head in his comment at Bella - the likelihood is that only a tiny percentage of voters will spoil their ballot, and the whole exercise will have been futile. Indeed, even with an SNP endorsement, my guess is that the number of spoilt ballots will still not exceed the number of Yes votes or No votes, although they may well be great enough to claim a moral victory.

So for my money, the overwhelming focus of the campaign for now should be on lobbying MSPs and other leadership figures within the SNP. Without their help, I suspect the considerable enthusiasm the campaign is undoubtedly attracting from online supporters will not be anything like enough.


  1. Well obviously we disagree but let me explain why...

    First, can you explain what AV is for? From my understanding its not proportional and will make little or no change to the makeup of the Scottish Parliament. So what's it all about, and I thought we couldn't have a referendum because of the recession, remember that? So there is a wider question of democracy - we're having a referendum on a subject with minimal public interest (after all we've had PR in Scotland for over a decade) - whilst we're NOT having one on the subject that received overwhelming support (at its high point 86% backed a referendum on Scottish Independence).

    The Liberals have sold their souls to the Tories for a system that isn't proportional.

    Second of all we don't expect or particularly need SNP backing. In some ways building a movement beyond a single party we think is a better. This is about building a different kind of politics where we don't wait for crumbs from the constitutional table tweaking wee bits of the creaking British political system (which is what Calman, House of Lords Reform - if it ever happens or AV are).

    There are examples of this working elsewhere (maybe its you who's not 'think outside the box' ?)- anyway I dont share your pessimism, we've been overwhelmed with the response so far. But I appreciate the place your coming if you can explain to me the benefits of AV that would be great. Its fair to say thought is intervention isn't based on anti-AV feelings - I have no feeling whatsoever abut AV and neither does anyone I know...

  2. BC, the ideal of building a new kind of politics outside the confines of party allegiance and the traditional media is an inspiring one, and I fully support it. But in the real world, from the position we're in right now, to imagine that there is already the basis for a grass-roots movement that can solely through its own endeavours achieve the kind of feat you're talking about simply isn't credible. My point about the SNP was a very practical one - without the backing of by far the largest pro-independence force I just don't see how the campaign is viable.

    You mention the enthusiasm you've encountered thus far - yes, I've seen it in the comments at Bella and Newsnet Scotland, and it's very real. It's also coming from a hardcore of support. Even if you have 50,000 people who feel that way it's a drop in the ocean unless you have a way of reaching out to the non-political masses - which is incredibly tough when you're asking them to do something as offbeat as responding to the question "Yes or No to AV?" with the answer "Independence". In a way you proved my point by saying I was failing to think out of the box - that's as nothing to the resistance and apathy you're going to encounter elsewhere. Although you may not even be aware of that until it's too late - often with these kind of campaigns, the enthusiasm of the supporters is so huge that it's seductively easy to think everything is going fantastically well until the ballot boxes are actually opened. The harsh reality is that it's quantity of support, not quality, that counts in a referendum.

    You mentioned that there are examples of this sort of thing working elsewhere - I'd be interested to know what they were, and if they really managed to succeed without any backing at all from the MSM, political parties or well-known public figures?

    I'd probably better split my comment, because there's a character limit...

  3. OK, onto the merits (or otherwise) of AV. No, it's categorically not proportional - indeed, I described it in my post above as a "rubbish majoritarian system". But the lack of proportionality is not the only problem with FPTP, and AV does deal with many of the others. Voters will be freed from the tyranny of having to choose between an 'honest' but completely counter-productive vote (eg. for Ralph Nader in Florida in 2000), and a cynical vote for a party they don't much like to freeze out a party they like even less. But the main selling-point is the obvious one - no candidate can win without majority support in the constituency. There will be no more perverse results like Belfast South where everyone knows that the majority of the population would prefer to be represented by either the candidate who finished second or the candidate who finished third, rather than the candidate who actually won. In a nutshell, under AV the result in each individual constituency will accurately reflect the popular will - under FPTP that is demonstrably not the case.

    Now, I'm not pretending that the points I've just mentioned are spectacular advances, but from an electoral reformer's point of view it's silly to pretend that they're not advances at all. (I also dealt with some of the counter-arguments that have been raised in more detail here.)

    You mentioned that we've had PR in Scotland for over a decade - in some tiers of government we have, but not at Westminster, which still has massive control over our lives. For as long as that's the case, the shortcomings of FPTP continue to affect us all.

    Finally, you pointed out that there's far more public demand for a referendum on independence than on AV. I'm not arguing. I just don't see how a tiny percentage of people spoiling their ballot papers in the AV referendum will remedy the situation - which is what is overwhelmingly likely to happen unless you get the endorsement of the SNP for the campaign.

  4. Brief additional point while I'm thinking of it - if we'd had AV at the last general election it would have killed Scottish Labour's strategy stone dead. The next time they say "you have to vote for us to keep the Tories out", the voters can simply respond "no problem, I'll give you my fifth preference, ahead of the Tories".

  5. Thanks for the ideas. But here's the paradox, on the one hand you say our notion is crazy and wont win popular support but AV will because it will avoid 'perverse results like Belfast South' or 'Nader in Florida in 2000'? This is the view from within the politicos bubble, surely, to credit Leslie Nielson?

    We do have some idea to 'reach out to the non-political masses' but No 1 of these is we think people are attracted to the idea of non violent protest and mischieve making. This may be superficial but there's a deeper point about disillusionment with politics and the idea that a mathematical equation about vote counting doesnt respond to.

    I'll focus on the examples where this has worked elsewhere tomorrow but say that "Westminster still has massive control over our lives. For as long as that's the case, the shortcomings of FPTP continue to affect us all." Our point I suppose is that its not tippy-tappy tinkering with voting systems that changes this reality its independence.

    Why have a lick of the icing when you can eat the cake (and bake another)?

  6. Actually, I'm not especially confident that the specific examples I raised would have that much resonance with the public - I just think they're rational reasons for believing AV represents a (small) democratic advance.

    "We do have some idea to 'reach out to the non-political masses' but No 1 of these is we think people are attracted to the idea of non violent protest and mischieve making."

    Oh, I think they are, but first of all you have to get them to listen to the idea properly and take it seriously. Unless you get a high-profile endorsement, most people either a) won't hear about it, or b) will only be dimly aware of it and won't treat it as a serious option in any case. Even with the current disillusionment it's difficult for a non-conventional candidate to succeed in an election - but when you're dealing with an option that isn't even on the ballot paper, it's going to be a hundred times harder to hold people's attention. So many people choose how to vote in a very casual way.

    "Our point I suppose is that its not tippy-tappy tinkering with voting systems that changes this reality its independence.

    Why have a lick of the icing when you can eat the cake (and bake another)?"

    Absolutely true, but as things stand the best way of achieving that in May is to vote for the SNP (or other pro-independence parties) in the Holyrood elections. I'd see a vote for electoral reform at Westminster as an unfortunate short-term necessity, and a long-term insurance policy in case independence is long-delayed (which sadly is scarcely inconceivable).

  7. 'The next time they say "you have to vote for us to keep the Tories out", the voters can simply respond "no problem, I'll give you my fifth preference, ahead of the Tories".

    That's the best reason I've heard so far for AV.

    I dont share your pessimism - so maybe we'll jus have to agree to disagree and we'll see how it goes.

    The irony here is that - as in other elections - it really doesnt matter what we vote in Scotland. So if we have our campaign for spoilt papers making a statement about democracy and independence - it may well be that the rest of the UK votes in favour of AV. So, to carry on my random cake analogy, we may be able to have our cake and eat it.

  8. I'm on board with this. It's true that the spoiled ballots are unlikely to be numerous enough to show the referendum up for the pile of shite that it is, but it's also unlikely that "yes" is going to win. So what the hell.

    James - AV would have done little damage to Labour's "two-horse race" strategy at the UK election. Their message was that you couldn't vote SNP (or anyone else) because that would risk Labour being denied a seat, which increases the Tories' chances of getting a parliamentary plurality. That would still stand under AV.

  9. That's quite a subtle idea to get across to people though, Colin. A 'two-horse race' message resonates a hell of a lot more if everyone can only vote for one party.