Wednesday, May 05, 2021

James Graham looks back at the AV referendum 10 years on

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James Graham has written a cracking post looking back at the referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote for British general elections.

This took place on 5 May 2011 and its staging formed part of the Coalition agreement. Unfortunately, it turned out that no one had any idea how to argue for AV because, as James confirms, no one much believed in the system.

I can't remember a single poster or slogan from the pro-AV campaign. I can't even remember voting in the referendum, though I suppose I must have done.

Anyway, here are a few highlights from James's post, but do hurry over to Quaequam Blog! and read the whole thing:

It was genuinely surprising to me that in the run up to the EU referendum, no-one from the Remain campaign ever approached me about my thoughts on what they should and should not do. Perhaps this is ego talking, but I’m not aware of anyone in the campaign being approached.

It seemed remarkable to me that no-one seemed to think they had anything to learn from us. But then, if I was a Cameron-supporting Tory who had been on the No to AV side and was aware of what a brutally effective campaign that had been, I would have moved the earth to avoid holding a second national referendum in the first place. It isn’t just the Lib Dems who were guilty of hubris.


I’m not writing this to especially condemn the man – there has been far too much water under the bridge since – but it seems very weird to me the degree to which Lord Sharkey‘s role in the campaign has been downplayed and even airbrushed out of history. ... And yet it was my recollection that every single significant appointment or campaign decision had been made by him. No one has ever challenged this as far as I know. He’s just been essentially erased.


My career weirdly mirrors Nick Tyrone’s. While the AV referendum was the finishing of my political career, it was the making of his. He went from an obscure film producer who just happened to be the husband of Nick Clegg’s Director of Policy, to the head of the Radix think tank. He fell out with the Lib Dems pretty quickly post-2015 as the party sought to distance itself from the “coalicious” period and these days has very much positioned himself in the same right wing circles as Matthew Elliot.



Frank Little said...

The people who most believed in AV were some Labourites who did not have the integrity to argue for the system in public when it came to the referendum. This was rich, considering that AV only got on the table at coalition talks because Gordon Brown had put it there.

Labour did not bother to address the question on the ballot, instead using the vote as one of confidence in Nick Clegg.

Andrew Kitching said...

Smarter move in retrospect would have been an insistence on STV for local government for England and Wales, as in Scotland and NI. get people used to preferential voting, and make councils more representative.

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

@Frank Little: "considering that AV only got on the table at coalition talks because Gordon Brown had put it there."

There's a lot of myth about how the alternative option wound up being AV. James wrote about this in his review of the book on the referendum a decade ago (specifically the section Return to Jenkins):

In summary by 2004 at the latest a consensus on working towards AV had emerged in Westminster/Whitehall circles between Labour, Lib Dem and electoral system change campaigners such that it became the main show in town. Hence the Brown government brought a Bill for an AV referendum (although dissolution killed it) and come May 2010 it was the going rate. But one problem was this consensus was localised and there wasn't a great deal of strategy.

And specifically in responding comments when the piece was reproduced on Lib Dem Voice:

No, Old Codger, that is exactly wrong. My point is that AV was being touted as effectively the only option around Westminster since before 2004.

Whether it *was* the best option was not discussed outside of Westminster. ERS itself was not having that discussion internally; the Lib Dems weren't having that discussion internally. Nevertheless, cross party talks were going on about AV on a regular basis.

It is a complete misconception to believe that it only emerged in May 2010 as the only option the Tories would compromise on. And even if that was the case we are still open to the charge of not doing our jobs properly because it should have been better strategised than that.