Opinion: Liberal Democrats to hold inquiry into AV Referendum

The Guardian reports that the Party has decided to hold an inquiry, headed by James Gurling, into the Yes to AV campaign.

I wrote a piece for Lib Dem Voice back in May calling for an inquiry and since then more and more information has come to light about the shambolic and incompetent way the Yes campaign was run.

What does seem rather odd is that there has been no announcement to Party members and activists that this inquiry was taking place and asking for their input. I asked a couple of Lib Dems who had been highly active in local campaigns and they confirmed that they had not been approached for their views.

But the important thing is that the inquiry is taking place, that the results will be made public and that the Party has responded to grassroots pressure.

We can look forward to an interesting discussion in Birmingham!

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19 Comments

  • It is true to say, to put it mildly, that there were probably flaws in the way that the YES campaign operated. I know of no one who would disagree and it is a discussion that has been held here and elsewhere ad nauseum.

    But I would hope that any inquiry would look at factors wider than the campaign itself. In particular, the determination to hold the referendum on the same day of the local elections was catastrophic and, worse, always looked like a bad decision. Leaving aside Lib Dem unpopularity, it is wrong to hold a referendum on the same day as elections in some but not all parts of the country. The shabby way the legislation gat rammed through Parliament, linked to constituencies left a bad taste in the mouth. And this is before we get to AV, not STV or an actual PR system being on the ballot.

    It just looked, at times like the leadership saw ticking a manifesto box as being at least as important as winning the thing. There was no need of any sort for this rush.

    It is undeniable that the campaign left much to be desired and people who gave time and money deserve answers. But the inquiry needs to take a look at who in the leadership made a number of very poor decisions that contributed to a 70:30 result, and on what advice those decisions came about.

    And just to be clear, this is not a partizan shot at anyone – if we are going to have an inquiry, fine, but should be a real one, not one limited to the campaign itself.

  • Elaine Bagshaw 28th Jun '11 - 10:23am

    I think the Guardian article on this was a tad misleading. We decided at the last FE meeting that we’d do a review similar to the one done after the General Election. James G is chair of the Campaigns & Communications committee, hence he’s ended up referred to as leading the investigation. In terms of people being contacted, I believe the review is in it’s early stages, so I would hope that more people are consulted as it goes on. General feedback from members and local parties was given at FE

  • Will this also include an investigation into the sheer stupidity of holding a referendum on the same day as partisan elections. If there was an issue about being careful with public funds then any referendum should have been deferred until later in the parliamentary campaign. And for an issue that was so inextricably linked to the Liberal Democrats to hold the referendum when it had been acknowledged that the coalition would be unpopular was daft as well.

    Taking all that into account, it’s no wonder that the Yes campaign was useless, and even less wonder that the referendum was lost.

  • @Duncan – hadn’t seen your comment before I posted mine but we are broadly in agreement.

    I would point out though that an AV referendum didn’t tick anyone’s manifesto box. Personally, I’d rather have not had a referendum on AV but focused on dispelling the myth that coalition was inherently unstable. Not, of course, that stable government is the same as good government.

    We also pushed AV on grounds that were either complete nonsense or actually points that would count against further reform to a fully proportional system. Clegg’s much-quoted compromise quote was actually 100% correct and it was a compromise that wasn’t worth making.

  • “I think the Guardian article on this was a tad misleading. We decided at the last FE meeting that we’d do a review similar to the one done after the General Election. ”

    So it won’t ask many of the people with actual knowledge of what went on?

  • Allan Heron – Yes, there are real questions to be asked about how this referendum came to be held at a time that suited the NO campaign down to the ground.

    To be clear, the YES campaign itself has real questions to answer. I am not seeking to throw blame solely at the Lib Dem leadership. The message about AV will stop corruption was so wrong-headed it is hard to know where to start and I can not believe that the campaign could not see how bad a line it was.

    But I think we agree that any inquiry must look at more than the campaign in isolation.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Jun '11 - 12:05pm

    If the campaign had been put into the hands of experienced political campaigners rather than professional ad-men and PR-people, it might have helped. The old ALC people who taught our party how to fight elections didn’t need qualifications in business jargon and big money City contacts to get it right. What went wrong with the AV campaign is symptomatic of a greater malaise at the top of our party.

  • Wrote a blog about this https://starkrush.wordpress.com/2011/06/07/av-referendum-much-more-than-a-resounding-no/

    Main point to consider is that there was no place for counter-arguments, making it so simple for lies to predominate over the yes campaigns points.

  • I’m also surprised that there has not been any announcement or request for activist input, but am glad that the inquiry is taking place in addition to feedback the ERS, Unlock Democracy and Take Back Parliament have been collecting, as it’s important to look at the implications for the party. I have been acively involved in a local campaign in which I think the cross-party element was a positive outcome (these mustn’t get lost in all the disappointment), but I have a good deal to say about the campaign from a Lib Dem perspective. Not being asked for our opinions does not of course mean not giving them – therefore, any advice on the most effective channels gratefully received.

  • Simon McGrath 28th Jun '11 - 10:10pm

    @elaine – can you say some more about what was discussed at the FE? What is the timetable and how will people be able to input into the inquiry?

  • Old Codger Chris 29th Jun '11 - 3:28am

    Is an inquiry really needed?
    (1) As everyone knows, the timing was wrong. A cause associated with the Lib Dems was voted upon as the party’s popularity hit rock bottom.
    (2) The No campaign was more professional than the Yes campaign despite (or perhaps because) of the fact that it told bigger fibs. At least the No campaign didn’t talk down to people and ignore potential allies in other parties.
    (3) AV is such a rubbish system that some of us felt obliged to hold our noses and vote for FPTP. When did the Lib Dems decide that AV = reform?
    (4) Most people know little and care less about voting systems – so anyone proposing a move away from an age-old system has to convince the public that change would widen democracy rather than merely helping a party which has never been able to move above third place. Everyone knew that the referendum was a sop to the Lib Dems (although, ironically, the days when AV would have helped the party win seats may now be history).

  • Kirsten de Keyser 29th Jun '11 - 10:24am

    Of course an enquiry is needed.
    Win or lose, an enquiry is ALWAYS needed in order to do better next time.

    @Matthew Huntbach “If the campaign had been put into the hands of experienced political campaigners rather than professional ad-men and PR-people, it might have helped” is spot on. And because of the resulting experimental nature of the Yes campaign, surprise surprise, we lost.

    Errors:
    1. Leadership settling for AV in the first place.
    Try selling a ‘miserable little compromise’ .

    2. Running Obama’s campaign without Obama and without the mindset of the US electorate.
    I’m sure the idea must have sounded real sexy at the pitch meeting.

    3. Lumping the referendum in with an ordinary election thus losing the media in favour of the election coverage.
    It’s much more fun for political hacks to play the man rather than the ball. AV is just a ball, there is no man.

    So fundamental are these three errors alone that conspiracy theorists might be excused for speculating that the LibDem leadership had a secret tryst with the Tories to kick this issue into the long grass.

    Apart from raking over what went wrong here, the enquiry should apply it’s magnifying glass with some diligence to the constituencies where it went right. They might just find that, fed up with the Yes HQ experiment, campaigners in these constituencies simply took matters into their own hands and used conventional campaigning methods.

    Next time we try this, give us Obama first…

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Jun '11 - 10:25am

    Old Codger Chris

    (1) As everyone knows, the timing was wrong. A cause associated with the Lib Dems was voted upon as the party’s popularity hit rock bottom.

    OK, I’ll give you that one. To make it worse, the “Yes” campaign tried it make it a re-run of the 2010 general election campaign, with all this stuff about duck houses, more honest politicians etc. Oh, sooo 2010, and this was 2011. And the 2010 general election campaign was a flop anyway, the more it ran, the more we lost votes, the opposite of what usually happens with our vote. The effect was simply to remind people of what they perceived as Nick Clegg’s “broken promises” (I have argued elsewhere unfairly, but no-one’s listening, the “own the coalition” presentational disaster made just after it was formed ensured that) and to help along the idea that this was a referendum on Clegg.

    (2) The No campaign was more professional than the Yes campaign despite (or perhaps because) of the fact that it told bigger fibs. At least the No campaign didn’t talk down to people and ignore potential allies in other parties.

    No, I think the opposite was true. The Yes campaign was run by people who had no heart or passion for it, professional PR-people and ad-men who treated it as they would selling a product. This is why it was talking down to people because that’s what sales campaigns do. They are patronising, supposing people will be moved by glib slogans and celebrity endorsement and the like, but can’t be shown the details as that’s not fun ad-man and PR people stuff. What we actually needed was a campaign that was about educating not selling, but that’s not what the professionals do. I felt this even before the revelations of what was going on behind closed doors in the Yes campaign came out – but those revelations just show up even more my point, what went wrong was that AV was sold like a dodgy consumer product by people who can’t get their heads round doing anything else but that because that’s what their profession is.

    (3) AV is such a rubbish system that some of us felt obliged to hold our noses and vote for FPTP. When did the Lib Dems decide that AV = reform?

    They didn’t, but that’s an ad-man or PR-persons view of how to sell things. Whatever it is you’re selling, you have to claim it’s absolutely wonderful, the answer to all life’s problems, but you have to do that in a vague waffly way where making a big show rather than factual explanation is what impresses people to buy the product, and one reason for sticking to being vague and waffly is that you don’t want to be made to justify your arguments so your vagueness is your get-out clause should you ever be made accountable for what you said. The reality is that Liberal Democrats knew all along this was, well “miserable little compromise” are the words that stuck and can’t much be bettered. But just because it was a compromise, a small move towards the more radical electoral reform that (I hope) remains our ideal, does not mean it was worthless. I think we could have been more honest and said that.

    (4) Most people know little and care less about voting systems – so anyone proposing a move away from an age-old system has to convince the public that change would widen democracy rather than merely helping a party which has never been able to move above third place

    The paradox was that people complained about the Liberal Democrats being too weak and the Conservatives having too much power, and did so by voting “No” to AV when the main argument put in favour of AV was that it weakened third parties and strengthened the biggest party. If AV has been on place, there’d have been more LibDem MPs, fewer Tory MPs, hence the LibDems would have been able to be stronger in the coalition, and a coalition with Labour would have been viable as it was not under what FPTP delivered. Doesn’t it take an extraordinary degree of incompetency, when there’s an unpopular government in power which is able to do unpleasant things because the FPTP electoral system distorts representation and so enables it, to get the people to give a massive vote in favour of FPTP, with some of the biggest pro-FPTP votes being in places which are most against the government that was delivered by FPTP?

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Jun '11 - 10:26am

    Sorry, I missed an italics close tag somewhere.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Jun '11 - 10:28am

    No tags here, still in italics?

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Jun '11 - 10:30am

    And when I wrote “when the main argument put in favour of AV was that it weakened third parties and strengthened the biggest party”, it should have been “the main argument put in favour of FPTP …”

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Jun '11 - 10:40am

    Kirsten de Keyser

    1. Leadership settling for AV in the first place.
    Try selling a ‘miserable little compromise’ .

    As I have written, it would be better if we got out of this ad-man’s way if thinking, and stopped thinking of it as “selling”.

    Yes, it’s a compromise, and what’s wrong with that? That’s what decent politics should be about – finding a point which is mid-way between competing demands, a compromise most people can live with. We have democracy so we can arrive at such things. On the who l its better than a dictator who doesn’t have to compromise because he’s a dictator. No “miserable little compromises” in Libya or Syria.

    We probably would have done better if we had downplayed the effects of AV, and agreed it was just a small technical change which ends the “vote for X not Y otherwise you split the vote and let Z in” anomaly. A low key campaign, illustrating that anomaly, giving a few practical scenarios, nothing flashy, no grand claims, might have done the trick. And it would have had the great benefit of being neither dishonest nor patronising.

  • Old Codger Chris 30th Jun '11 - 1:09am

    @Matthew Huntbach
    I agree with much of your argument, although we obviously disagree about whether AV is slightly better than FPTP.

    Has anyone looked at the Electoral Reform Society’s website lately? Apparantly the Yes campaign was some kind of triumph as so many people made the effort to vote in the referendum, and some of them actually voted for change. The result wasn’t an humiliation but “the dawning of an exciting new period for democratic reform in the UK”. What planet is the ERS on?

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