Monday, 9 May 2011

Some Thoughts On The AV Referendum

A post by Edward Spalton:

Well, Mr. Salmond certainly did very well. From the limited reporting of Scottish affairs down here, I always thought he had a very competent team of ministers. Whilst I don't share his views, the destruction of the corrupt one-party Labour strongholds of the West will certainly be a breath of fresh air. And I just had to raise a little cheer for Kirkcaldy!

However back to the subject of the post.

There are some lessons to be learned from this. They need thinking about but would not necessarily transfer to an in/out EU referendum.

1. Self Delusion by the Liberal Democrats 

Electoral reform has been the holy grail of the Liberal and later the Liberal Democrat Party for generations. Through talking amongst themselves they became convinced that “public opinion is moving our way”. It was obvious from the attitude of some of their spokesmen that they really believed the case for AV was so self-evident that nice, reasonable  people could not possibly be against it. In one interview Mr. Huhne, for instance,  likened opponents to the people he most despises – Americans who are not convinced by President Obama's birth certificate! This rather arrogant self-righteousness came across and was very off-putting to the sort of people who are interested in politics, open to persuasion but not deeply committed.

2. Desire to give the Lib Dems a Good Kicking

Untainted by government responsibility, the Lib Dems were very successful over the years in presenting themselves as the “nice” party, not like those awful, squabbling, dishonest, tribal, thuggish Labour and Tory people. On their first scent of office since 1945, they reneged spectacularly on their manifesto promise about university fees. Arguably the financial situation did not give them much choice but people saw this as outright twisting and hypocrisy, were irritated by their smugness and resolved to take them down a peg or two. In spite of support for AV from members of other parties, people saw it as a Lib-Dem project and voted to show their disapproval of the Lib Dems. This is a lesson for any referendum. 

It is true that people do not necessarily vote in answer to the question on the paper. In the 1975 referendum on “Common Market” membership, my late father, a dyed in the wool Tory, said “I don't like this European business but that man Wedgewood Benn's against it – so there must be some good in it”! Anecdotal I know but I am sure this sort of thing, repeated many times,  adds up to a potent  force in the circumstances of any referendum. The choice of “champions” is crucial and Eddy Izzard & Co plainly were not up to the job. There were also blatantly bogus claims for the benefits of AV – it was said that it would “make MPs work harder” and draw a line under the distrust of politicians arising from the scandals over expenses. I cannot think that anybody outside the small group of enthusiasts inside the political bubble (and probably not even them) ever believed either of these things for a moment. 

3. The Weight of the Status Quo

I am not sure where the figure comes from but I have heard it said that, in any referendum, there is a built-in bias of around 15% in favour of the existing situation. People are suspicious and nervous of change. This may have played a part here. 

4. Absence of Long Term Heavyweight Preparation and Propaganda

The calling of the referendum was itself a compromise on a compromise choice of system, agreed only at the beginning of the coalition about a year ago. So no deep manipulation of public opinion was possible, as occurred over several years in the early Seventies before the EEC referendum. The government spin machine was not involved, neither were the main party machines and associated interests, such as trade unions and employers' groups. The campaign was largely confined to the official  period between the calling of the local elections and May 5th.

Edward Spalton 9/5/2011


Mark Wadsworth said...

Ed has a great grasp of the sweep of history, but I just have one minor niggle with this:

"On their first scent of office since 1945, they reneged spectacularly on their manifesto promise about university fees. Arguably the financial situation did not give them much choice..."

1. I'm not aware that this was in the Tory manifesto either.

2. The new rules mean that people who take mickey mouse courses end up paying less, and those who take sensible courses which lead to a proper job pay a lot more (as will people whose parents can afford to pay it up front), so it's not really a proper Tory policy at all.

3. Therefore, I can only assume that the Tories did it deliberately in order to make the Lib Dems look particularly dishonest, "no tuition fees" being one of the few things in the Lib Dem manifesto which we can all remember.

English Pensioner said...

If you look at the LibDem manifesto, they promised major changes to the NHS, including cutting the excessive administration and the various regional authorities. Of course they never believed they might get power, so they thought were quite safe in making these promises. Much of the Tory proposals are very similar, but the LibDems are now objecting to them. Either they didn't read their own manifesto, or are simply two-faced.

JRB said...

The referendum was wholly inappropriate and wrong. It should never have been called.

It was called, not because it was a major burning issue for the electorate, who have far greater worries.
It was called solely because Cameron used it as a political sop to appease an ever embattled and isolated Clegg.
That is the same Mr Clegg who called AV “a miserable little compromise”.

Even the LibDems never had their heart in this referendum. The noise generated by a few LibDems as to how the campaign was being run was mere political posturing.

What has happened to the LibDems is that on entering the coalition they relinquished their ethics, their conscience and their moral compass not for thirty pieces of silver, but for a few seats round the cabinet table.

The electorate has not, and will, not forgive such treachery; hence their derisory results in all the recent elections.

And for many LibDem MPs it is not over yet.

Anonymous said...

There seem to be an awful lot of opinions re the failure of the Yes campaign flying about which involve convoluted calculations of PR spin etc.

Why is it so difficult to understand that, since only about (what was it?) 35% of voters voted, those who did vote voted because they were interested?

I voted because I was interested. My decision to vote 'No' was made essentially because I could not see what was fair about a person voting for, say, UKIP (just an an example!), simply as a protest vote when their real intention was to vote for, say, the Tories, which they then entered as their 2nd preference. It is easy to see how this sort of manipulation can occur in a seat which is essentially a safe Tory seat. Remember that it is only the 2nd (3rd etc) preference of THE CANDIDATES WHO DROP OUT whose votes are redistributed. In effect, they get two bites of the cherry, which is not right in my opinion.

I don't like PR either because, under PR, there really is no point in having constituencies. Party grandees would decide who can be candidates, which is a recipe for corruption on a massive scale.

Maybe, some time in the future, a better idea will emerge. For the time being, however, voting reform is dead. Let's just forget it.

subrosa said...

That's why I don't like PR Junican.

Edward Spalton said...

Of course, Mark Wadsworth is right that I treated the university fees business rather superficially.

I am glad he thinks I have a grasp on the "broad sweep of history". Perhaps it arises from the family world view, which is instinctively rural and Tory though not really politically activist.

One of the family stories I heard from an early age was of my grandfather who decked his pony and trap in Conservative colours in the "Peers v People" election of 1910. He was pelted through the streets of Liberal Derby. Feelings ran very high.

What a pity we don't have a real conservative party to decorate our ponies and traps or to vote for nowadays!

Crinkly & Ragged Arsed Philosophers said...

68% of a 42% turnout = 28% which equates to a joke in any democratic process.

And the joker in this pack of cards is Westminster.

Jo G said...

"The new rules mean that people who take mickey mouse courses end up paying less, and those who take sensible courses which lead to a proper job pay a lot more (as will people whose parents can afford to pay it up front), so it's not really a proper Tory policy at all."

Very brave to call some of these degrees what they are Mark and therein lies the problem for many universities today and for the taxpayer.

The problem is we have now programmed pupils to expect to get into uni yet in the not too distant past those who went to uni were in the minority which wasn't to say the others did not leave school with excellent ordinary and higher grades that allowed them to find good jobs very easily. Furthermore in those days people who achieved good grades in English and Mathematics could actually write and spell and count. These days, even coming out of uni, many lack even the basics in English and Maths. Something is wrong.

I would rather see an overhaul in what we are teaching in schools because we are clearly failing.

It is possible that the vast majority of the Mickey Mouse brigade at our unis could be catered for in schools if we thought the whole system through again. It would save us a fortune. There was a time when many of us left school equipped to go into a job - a good job - and cope. Too many now seem to require propping up for another few years at uni to emerge with one of these "Mickey Mouse" degrees and then prospective employers look at the quality of "graduate" and despair.

subrosa said...

I'm on your 'side' Jo. What is it about today's youth thinking a university education is a 'right'? Who says that? Schooling is a right in Scotland but not further education. That has to be worked for.

If this attitude continues more and more graduates will be saying a job's a 'right' too and by that time many will be well into their 20s without having done a day's work.

I'm for the return of technical schools. Remind me to write about this soon. :)

Jo G said...

Along with "technical studies" which we used to have in schools, bigtime, we had Secretarial Studies too where excellent training was given which enabled young women to walk into secretarial posts completely trained in the skills required: this included a sound understanding of office machinery, mailing systems and the workings of the Royal Mail itself. Young women had to pass three separate examinations in order to succeed in an overall pass in Secretarial Studies. (No allowances made either for spelling mistakes either. Anyone who presented work which had not been checked for spelling errors failed. We were taught that one of the most important pieces of equipment required in that line of work was a dictionary. )

subrosa said...

Anyone who wanted to learn technical skills had to go to the secondary modern down the road as the academy didn't have the room to provide them Jo. The two schools worked together. Now both schools have been amalgamated under the academy's roof. Strange really because the building isn't any bigger, so something's smaller or non-existent since the 60s.

Jo G said...

Well big decisions have to be made in Scotland on education. One can confidently predict that once courses have to go we'll have many opposed to such a thing regardless of the validity of the argument for getting rid of those Mark called the Mickey Mouse ones. There is a debate to be had and there are bullets to be bitten. As you say it is fine to believe in the principle of free education but we simply have to look at some of these courses and have a think about what subjects actually merit degree status.

subrosa said...

You've reminded me of a post I must write Jo.

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