Five lessons from the AV referendum

Posted on May 5, 2011

The dust has settled, the fog of war has dissipated, and every other introductory cliche in the book has been used. What have we really learned about British politics from the crushing victory of the No2AV campaign? There are five implications that I can see for the practice and principle of politics. Here they are, in no particular order:

1) Combat Campaigning is here to stay. For several years now there have been signs that the methods and style of political campaigning have been evolving in Britain.As the old party system has become weaker, there were two voices vying to be its heir: on one side there was combative, streetfighting campaigning built on the belief that a proper dust-up interests people and produces the best ideas; on the other side was a consensus model, founded on the idea that no-one liked a nasty argument and it was much better to build a cosy centrist consensus.

Not only did the two sides in the AV referendum employ these two competing models – with No going combative and Yes opting for cuddles and herbal tea – but their beliefs aligned with them as well. AV is a system founded on the idea that politicians should share body warmth smack in the centre, whilst First Past the Post is about the battle of ideas.

The fact that No won bears out both the model of campaigning they employed and the belief that they were fighting for – people are more interested in a boxing match than a singalong. While Yes tried to argue that real life is preferential and consensual, voters thought otherwise. The campaigning style espoused by No, and pioneered in the UK by the TaxPayers’ Alliance, is successful and on that basis it here to stay.

2) The “Progressive Majority” doesn’t exist…except in the minds of Islingtonians who can’t bear to imagine that anyone might disagree with them. Whether it’s LeftFootForward, Laurie Penny, Polly Toynbee or Liberal Conspiracy there’s an in-built smug sense of virtue to the new British Left – they think something, they know they’re the most compassionate and sensible people on the block, so therefore everyone must think the same, right? I mean, almost every TV comedian does, so obviously the rest of the population are on board too? Nope. It turns out that only Islington, Camden, Hackney, Cambridge, Oxford and part of Glasgow supported AV, the “Progressive Majority’s” new favourite child – and nationally on 6.1 million people even support AV, never mind the Progressives’ supposed vision of Britain. The referendum proved that those who shout loudest are not automatically the most numerous.

3) There is no such thing as Progressive. Not only is there no majority in favour of it, there is actually no such thing as Progressivism. In effect it could be defined accurately as: Progressive, noun, Someone nice, ie in agreement with me.

The really notable thing about this referendum is the way that it split the Left. The Lib Dems and the self-declared “Progressive Majority” – a broadly young rump of Labour, the NUS and the SWP’s twitterati and commentariat – divided from the mass base that they normally assume they can ignore and still gain funding from.

I’m only an outsider looking in on the Left, but if you viewed yourself as “Progressive” before the referendum, only to be told that if you voted No then you weren’t in the club any more, you’d now be reassessing whether you’re a “Progressive” any more.

4) No-one likes a whinger. Someone – I can’t remember who – once said that “It isn’t fair” is the most powerful message in British politics.

They were right, but the Yes camp ably demonstrated that this is only true when your situation genuinely isn’t fair. It’s not fair that if you join the Army you end up buying your own kit. It’s not fair that if you save all your life and provide for your kids you get hammered with extra taxes while others get a subsidy at your expense. It’s not fair that the Gurkhas risked their lives for this nation then told them to do a running jump.

When your opponents in a referendum campaign starting hitting you hard by digging up quotes that prove you’ve done an about-face or talking about Nick Clegg, that certainly is fair. You’re not going to gain any fans by trying to get judges to enforce Marquess of Queensberry Rules – in fact, you’re going to make people think you’re a bit of a wet blanket and don’t deserve their vote. So don’t moan, fight back.

5) People want more power. In the run-up to the referendum, everyone was saying that turnout would be apocalyptically low, threatening the idea that people wanted to be allowed to vote on important matters. It’s understandable why they thought people might not turnout – AV was a proposal hardly anyone had heard of previously and even fewer people actually liked (including most of the Yes campaign).

But that’s not how it turned out. Even on a boring proposal which had been brought forward as a result of political shenanigans in Whitehall back-offices, more than 40% turned out. That’s not bad given the topic. Imagine how many would turn out to vote in a referendum on, say, EU membership?

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Categories: Opinion, Politics

11 Responses

  1. Andrew Allison:

    Can’t disagree with anything you’ve said. The irony of it all is the Lib Dems never wanted AV. The Jenkins Commission didn’t want it either. Their ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity of electoral reform was hinged to a referendum on the most flawed system they could possibly have agreed to.

    09.05.2011 18:33 Reply

  2. Link Loving 09.05.11 « Casper ter Kuile:

    […] lessons from the AV referendum. I fear Mark Wallace is […]

    09.05.2011 19:40 Reply

  3. Dan Heaton:

    That dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat.

    10.05.2011 07:17 Reply

  4. Neil Reddin:

    All well put, Mark… And congratulations on a job well done.

    Re “progressives” … I’m not entirely sure what a progressive actually is anyway. I guess I could call myself a progressive because I want the country to move forward with lower taxes, less regulation, etc, etc…

    10.05.2011 07:39 Reply

  5. Mike Spilligan:

    An excellent and succinct summation, but I think the majority of us like to think we’re “progressive”, though what that really means depends on which direction one is progressing in.
    Dan Heaton: You can’t stereotype people – I’m a bearded fruit juice drinker, but was never in doubt of being in the “no” camp.

    10.05.2011 15:33 Reply

  6. Dick Puddlecote:

    “The “Progressive Majority” doesn’t exist”

    The Royal wedding proved this disconnect in spades. While pretentious bleeding heart ‘liberals’ were banging on about the ugliness of privilege, the rest of the country enjoyed an almighty party. If it weren’t for generational tribal voting, they’d be nowhere. It’s not for nothing that we used to laugh at the ‘loony left’ in the 80s, and if more people were switched on to politics, they’d be termed that again now.

    10.05.2011 16:58 Reply

  7. Tom Kaneko:

    Firstly, I must admit that I am one of those that voted Yes, even something of a campaigner. No matter, I think your first point is very apt – that combat campaigning is here to stay. The Yes campaign as you rightly suggest were completely outclassed in their strategic thinking by the Noes. I thought the campaign fought by No2AV was cynical, and at times outright deceitful, not that the Yes campaign was particularly compelling. But the strategy worked, for the reasons you have given. It’s something that liberals in general are vulnerable to – the Right kicking you in the balls given the chance. Perhaps they do this because they know liberals won’t kick back. I’m beginning to sound like a whinger, so I shall simply say, lesson learned.

    10.05.2011 21:37 Reply

  8. Jabba the Cat:

    Good summation.

    11.05.2011 00:13 Reply

  9. Ray Peters:

    “It’s not fair that if you join the Army you end up buying your own kit.”
    Whose Army did you join? When I did my National Service they gave me my kit for nothing. Even gave me a second lot when Eden tried to “protect” the Suez from the Egyptians and I was called back for 2 weeks.

    11.05.2011 12:07 Reply

  10. charles:

    “Perhaps they do this because they know liberals won’t kick back.”

    I can almost taste the sanctimoniousness. I’m soooooo nice. I would *never* do anything underhand like that.

    12.05.2011 04:24 Reply

  11. John:

    Good summation – “progressive” nonsense also cited here

    12.05.2011 17:50 Reply

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