Thursday, May 5, 2011

The wall-to-wall insult to our intelligence that has been the 'No to AV' campaign

As we move into polling day for only the second UK-wide referendum in history, I think this recent tweet sums up the position rather succinctly -

"Having spoken to a few & watching Facebook.. those voting YES tomorrow understand why. Those voting NO don't. Which is scary."

There's no great mystery as to why that's happening - the Yes campaign have actually been making the case for AV, while the No side have utterly failed to make a case for the current system. Their main strategy has been to sow confusion and doubt over what AV would mean, often contradicting themselves to the point of absurdity in the process. In fact, it's been such a cynical effort that many opponents of electoral reform haven't even bothered trying to defend the campaign - their holding line has been "but the Yes campaign has been just as bad". Well, it hasn't. It hasn't been perfect by any means, but the closing broadcast fronted by Dan Snow was 100% focussed on illuminating for voters how AV actually works (as opposed to the fantasy) and the strong case for concluding that it produces outcomes that reflect the will of the electorate much more accurately. The final No broadcast, by contrast, served up yet more drivel about how AV would mark the end of "one person, one vote", and the entirely invented "cost" of the system. (And that's leaving aside the appearance of a Rogue's Gallery of some of the most thuggish and illiberal politicians this country has produced in recent times, who have all - coincidentally - lined up on the No side.)

The magnus opus of the campaign of deception was of course the glossy leaflet the No side sent out to every household in the land a couple of weeks ago. I meant to dissect it at the time, but now is as good time as any. Let's take it in bite-sized chunks...

The Cost :

In spite of the fact that the figure has been long since discredited, the leaflet lies through its teeth with the headline "The Cost of AV is £250 Million". It then brazenly begins its breakdown of that number by revealing that £91 million of it is the cost of the referendum itself. In other words, money that will have been spent regardless of whether the result is Yes or No. By this logic, we'd be equally justified in calling the £91 million "the cost of retaining the current electoral system". Or perhaps their implicit pitch is "Vote No and this referendum will never have happened"?

The bulk of the remainder of the "£250 million" is the cost of counting machines - which it has been repeatedly pointed out won't be needed, since all the countries that use AV count votes by hand, just as we do at present. Of course counting machines can be used under AV - but equally they can be used under the current system, or under any other system. Perhaps the No campaigners would like to take up this issue if we ever have a referendum on whether to switch to using counting machines - but we're not having one of those at the moment. Indeed, the best reason of all for being reassured that we wouldn't use such machines if we move to AV is that the decision would be taken by the UK government - which is dominated by the very No to AV campaigners in the Tory party who have been prattling on about the subject for months. You can't get a much more effective 'double-lock' than that.

The last bit of the breakdown of the "cost" is £26 million for explaining the system to voters. Well, the Electoral Commission runs information campaigns before each and every significant election, so it seems reasonable to assume that explanations of the new system could be easily incorporated into those.

In a nutshell, switching to AV would cost virtually NOTHING.

What the "money saved" could be spent on :

(Note - to deal with the idiocy of this bit of the leaflet, we have to assume for the sake of argument that the £250 million figure has some validity, which of course it doesn't.) We're offered some startlingly specific examples of what we could have "instead of AV" - 2,504 doctors, perhaps, or if it's more to your taste, 35,885 hip replacements. The implicit argument here is that it's a moral outrage if good money is ever spent on absolutely anything other than these core priorities. Well, that's intriguing, because one thing that the sight of the aforementioned Rogue's Gallery of No supporters brought home the other night is that there's a considerable overlap between opponents of AV and those who are most keen on wasting billions of pounds on the utterly useless status symbol of Trident. Perhaps they'd like to talk to us some time about the 2,457,519,874 teachers they decided were far less important than the nominal capacity of David Cameron to annihilate the population of St Petersburg on a whim?

And it has to be said that the No campaign have spent rather a lot of money themselves. Surely according to their own laudable strictures that money ought to have been donated to a medical charity instead, or some such other good cause?

The Map :

It's a tough call, but arguably the most ludicrous part of the leaflet is the map which splits the world into just two camps - those countries that use AV, and those that don't. So apparently all the many things that divide countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and the UK (you know, whether they have Islamic theocracy, absolute monarchy, communist dictatorship, or "good old" first-past-the-post democracy) pale into insignificance compared to the one and only thing that unites them - that they don't use AV. This argument becomes even sillier when you bear in mind that many of the "non-AV countries" (France, for instance) use run-off systems that are actually much closer in principle to AV than to our current system.

Now, if I was going to split the democratic world into two camps (and it can really only be done for the democratic world - praying in aid the likes of Burma is daft and offensive beyond words), the division would be between those countries which have introduced some kind of electoral reform, and those that still use first-past-the-post - mainly because they inherited it from the British colonial era and haven't got round to changing it. The primary reason that only three countries specifically use AV is quite simply that most countries go the whole hog when they introduce electoral reform, and jump direct to full-blown proportional representation. Most Yes campaigners would like to do that here. Who stopped us from making that choice? Why, that would be the No campaigners in the Tory party, who brought forward a referendum on AV alone as "a final offer" to the Liberal Democrats, to "go the extra mile". It's a bit rich for them to now claim that the wrong sort of electoral reform is on the ballot paper, when they were the ones who put it there and denied us every other choice.

The Sporting Metaphor :

Ah, a No to AV leaflet simply wouldn't be complete without a picture of a sporting event, with an arrow pointing to a losing athlete, designating him as "the winner under AV". The problem here is that I can clearly detect a winning line in that picture, which makes it grossly unrealistic if it's supposed to be a depiction of the current voting system. AV has a clearly defined and logical winning post (50% of the vote) that everyone can understand - ironically, the so-called 'first-past-the-post' system has nothing of the kind. How many 100m races have you seen in which the contest was called off and a winner declared after 37 metres, because the judges felt it was "too complicated" to wait and see who would have been ahead after 100 metres? That's the present Westminster electoral system in a nutshell. The winning line might be 24% of the vote, it might be 48% - don't worry your pretty little heads about it, you'll find out after the race. See here for a jaw-dropping example of a candidate elected under first-past-the-post on the basis of just 7.7% of the vote. That happened in Papua New Guinea - which might just give you a small clue as to the rather good reason why that country switched to AV in the first place.

The Scottish Factor :

As far as I can see, the only nod to Scottish distinctiveness in the leaflet is some small print that indirectly acknowledges that we have already scrapped first-past-the-post for most elections, but asks us to consider this -

"There are already five different voting system in use in the UK - do we really need to complicate things with another?"

Just how slippery can they get - are they talking about "we in Scotland" (as Mrs Thatcher would say) or "we in the UK"? If the former, we in fact have four electoral systems at present - AMS for the Scottish Parliament, first-past-the-post for Westminster, a list system for the European Parliament, and STV for local elections. If we vote Yes to AV, we'll still have four - AMS, AV, list and STV. I don't know about you, but I make that exactly the same number.

* * *

I'm under no illusions here - if the polls are to be believed, the vested interests in the London establishment (not least in the odious right-wing press) are about to succeed in snuffing out hope for change. But this has been my potted guide to why they don't deserve to succeed - and I still hope that as many people as possible vote Yes, to keep the electoral reform torch burning, however dimly.


  1. The Dan Snow campaign broadcast was as good a political broadcast as I've seen - simple, direct and effective. It was far better than the earlier Yes campaign broadcasts.

  2. That lovely Dan Snow can canvass me anytime.

    Yes from me.

  3. Sadly I fear the No vote will triumph. We will then see the real Tory agenda at work..."well of course the people have spoken, and we must listen to and respect their verdict, a clear majority in favour of FPTP" (ignoring the reality that many No votes will be from people in favour of some form of PR) ", there will be no appetite for electoral reform now for a generation" (however long that is...)

    Why oh why did the Lib Dems agree to an AV referendum as the "reward" for all the flak they are getting? Even if the Yes vote does win the day it's not even what they want! It seems a fairly meagre prize in return for the kicking they are getting. Makes Clegg & co look pretty naive in their coalition negotiations. The Tories saw them coming a mile off.

    The real scandal here is that 1 in 3 votes counted for precisely nothing at the last UK general election. In other words one third of us do not have our vote represented in parliament. The Yes campaign should have been shouting that from the rooftops. Surely any system that throws away a third of the votes needs to be replaced.

  4. Agreed, FL, the wasted votes point is the most important one of all.

    Marcia, I saw your comment on PB that you didn't receive any literature from the Yes side. Same here, and if that was the case for everyone I think that was a big mistake. They probably calculated that most people get their information through the broadcast media, but there must still be a sizeable number of people who like to make a thoughtful decision by comparing the information in leaflets. So I think they missed a trick there.

  5. Ezio Auditore da Firenze - Alex Salmond for First MinisterMay 5, 2011 at 4:15 PM

    The YES Campaign were out in force on Buchanan Street in Glasgow yesterday though, and I haven't seen a single NO campaigner. Their awful leaflet did make its way to my Florentine villa though!