Guest post by Mark Littlewood.
The news today that Matthew Elliott is to spearhead the NO campaign against the Alternative Vote should send shudders through the pro-electoral reform lobby. There is a very long way to go before next May’s referendum – and it is not yet a nailed on certainty that the referendum will even take place – but the early signs are very ominous for supporters of electoral reform. My judgement is that the NO side are now clear, although not overwhelming, favourites.
The YES side face a number of substantial strategic and tactical hurdles and it’s not yet obvious that any of these have been satisfactorily addressed. Or, in some cases, how they can be.
1. The referendum on AV is, of course, a compromise. It is virtually no one’s ideal electoral system. Most of those supporting a YES vote will actually be committed to a more proportional voting system – most commonly STV. This isn’t to say that Nick Clegg shouldn’t have settled for the coalition deal, but it does raise problems for electoral reformers. Inevitably, people campaign harder – and are willing to give more money – to something they really believe in rather than towards a second best option. I expect the NO side to easily raise and spend the £5m expenditure limit and to have an impressive network of activists – these guys really and passionately believe in First Past the Post.
2. Slow progress to date. It has been known for well over three months that there was going to be a referendum on AV (although admittedly not the timetable).Of course, these are the early stages of both campaigns – but looked at another way, we are already nearly a third of the way to polling day. Peter Facey – head honcho at Unlock Democracy – assures me that the YES side will have a website soon and that staff recruitment is already being organised. It can’t happen too soon. The websites of Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society are yet to focus on AV to the exclusion of other issues. The NO side isn’t much further advanced, of course. But in fairness they started with a much less impressive national infrastructure.
3. Matthew Elliott’s appointment. This is the single clearest sign yet that the NO lobby is going to be deadly serious and superbly organised. Matthew is one of the sharpest operators and most successful campaigners on the British political scene. Not only is he certain to be an effective leader of the NO side, the mere fact that he has taken the job is significant. He would not have done so without copper-bottomed guarantees about the level of political and financial support he can call upon. Contrary to popular belief, he is not a Conservative and he has a proven record as a coalition builder. Of all possible leaders of the NO campaign, Matthew Elliott is the most daunting possible opponent.
4. The YES side looks set to be run largely by Liberal Democrats. This needs to be avoided. The reason is very simple. On virtually all analyses of AV, the LibDems are set to gain the most – perhaps more than 30 seats. LibDem activists, members or politicians advocating a YES vote will find it very hard to dodge accusations of special pleading. At the very least, the YES campaign should be wholly independent of Cowley Street.
5. The polls show a clear movement of public opinion to the NO side. This doesn’t mean an awful lot at this stage, but it does mean something. The latest polls show the two sides neck and neck, which amounts to a measurable shift against AV in recent months. The polls also show that the elderly are more opposed than the young and, of course, the former have a measurably higher propensity to vote. If the drift away from the YES camp continues, so do the diminishing odds on a YES victory.
6. Body count. The Conservatives and many of the larger trade unions are going to put their weight behind a NO vote. The combination means there will be a strong grassroots presence for the NO campaign in virtually every area of the country. The Liberal Democrat party machine is tiny in comparison, with LibDem membership now averaging less than 100 per constituency – and party membership is heavily concentrated in a few dozen, maybe a hundred, seats. The great imponderable is how the Labour Party might jump, but even if they were united and enthusiastic YES supporters, I’d expect the NO campaign to have many more troops on the ground.
7. The NO campaign may be able to position itself as the anti-establishment, anti-politician option. Electoral reform is not a high priority for a large percentage of the electorate. Being asked to vote on what many will consider a fairly obscure and technical issue – especially during difficult economic times – could well encourage a two-fingered salute from many voters. Expect the NO side to consistently argue that the referendum is only taking place because the LibDems have demanded it in order to promote their own narrow electoral interest.
8. Because AV isn’t proportional, some of the key moral arguments are harder to put. For all the dreadful downsides of party list systems, at least the argument can be made that if you get 18% of the vote, you should get 18% of the seats. This is the sort of principle that voters can easily grasp. The NO side can even say that there might be a case for a proportional system, but that’s not what is on offer.
9. Because AV is fairly technical, the NO side just need to raise sufficient doubts, whereas the YES side need to actually prove a complex case. For example, I expect the NO campaign to argue that if you are a BNP voter, your vote will count twice (because it will be transferred) but if you vote Conservative or Labour it will only count once (because it often won’t be transferred). The argument is spurious, but is superficially powerful. The NO side will benefit from confusion and uncertainty. A confused and uncertain electorate can be expected to vote NO.
10. The newspapers are likely to be overwhelming opposed to AV. The Guardian and Independent will be in favour – and possibly the Mirror. Pretty much everyone else will be against and quite possibly, vociferously so. Newspapers have a declining influence and a declining readership, but in a campaign in which many people do not have a strong view either way, the editorial position of popular newspapers could potentially carry more sway than in a General Election.
I had often assumed that securing a referendum on electoral reform would be the hardest part of the task. Now I am considerably less sure. As things stand today, I think the NO side may well win.
Mark Littlewood was Director of Liberal Vision from September 2008-December 2009. He is now the Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs. He writes here in a personal capacity.