Opinion: the battle for the Electoral Reform Society

One of the consequences of the failure of the AV campaign may be radical change at the venerable Electoral Reform Society. The ERS is conducting the biennial election for its Council at the moment with no less than 53 candidates standing for election to fill 15 places. There is also a range of motions at the AGM on 3 September, some of which would make fundamental changes to the ERS.

The main prize for anyone who controls the ERS is financial – they have by pressure group standards a huge income through their ownership of Electoral Reform Services Ltd which provides electoral services to a vast range of unions and professional bodies. In 2009 the firm had profits of £1.8m (down from £3m the previous year), net assets of £12.4m (including £4.6m in cash) and paid a dividend of £1.7m to the ERS.

Many (but by no means all) of the candidates who want change are banded to together in the ‘Reform Slate’ of 15 people, most of who worked together at grassroots level during the referendum and are angry about what they see as the incompetent way that campaign was run. Arnie Craven—who had headed up the Yes campaign in Leeds for example—says that he organised the distribution of 150,000 leaflets only to find that Yes had decided not to use the Freepost. Another member of the reform slate is Andy May who wrote a scathing insider’s account of the campaign.

One of the strengths of the Reform slate is that it has a range of political views (from UKIP members to several people who worked on David Miliband’s leadership bid) and organizational skills with some experienced managers to balance the youthful enthusiasm of the activists. Chris Carrigan, Chair of the (successful) Oxford Yes campaign, is a former Partner at Accenture and I suspect might end up ERS Chair if the reform slate forms a majority.

On the other hand there seems to be a very wide range of views about what the ERS should actually do and particularly the extent to which it should focused on other democratic initiatives such as reform of the Lords, increasing participation of women and votes at 16. I suspect if they are successful there will be considerable tensions on the Council over this the balance between campaigning for PR and campaigning for more general political reform.

The Reform slate’s website has more details about their position at www.ersreform.org.uk

No other group of candidates is as well organised. There are a number of individuals who want changes in the ERS as well as 9 existing members of council who are re-standing. Some of the current officers—for example Andrew Burns and Keith Sharp (Chair and Deputy Chair, respectively) are at pains to stress the organisational improvement of the last couple of years, particularly since Katie Ghose was appointed Chief Executive—but none of them really addresses the disaster of the Yes campaign. Talking to several current members of the Council they are very clear (and convincing) about the ERS’s lack of responsibility for the running of Yes but not covering this on their election addressees may prove a tactical error.

You can read all the candidates manifestos here.

An unknown factor in the election is the vast increase in membership over the last year from 2,500 to 5,000. A large part of this is due to an offer of free membership for 12 months which the ERS have been running. This was a great way of bringing on board the activists who they made contact with during the referendum but it may prove rather a brave (or naïve) move (interestingly it was not discussed by the ERS Council, a number of whose members may lose re-election because of it). The dangers of this were highlighted by veteran Lib Dem politician Michael Meadowcroft who is restanding for the Council and who unsuccessfully warned the Officers about the danger of entryism if they offered free membership without a waiting period before new members could vote.

The ERS makes available to candidates a printed list of members with names and addresses (but not e-mail addresses) which has helped the reform slate who have been able to to share the work (and cost) of organising a mail shot between them, which would be time consuming and expensive for an individual.

Just after the election is the AGM on 3 September. The most controversial motion is to delete STV from the ERS objectives – to support PR but not by a specific means. Others make the President a post elected by members and make the council elections annual – they all require a 75% vote in favour and all are (unanimously) opposed by the current Council.

I suspect that there will be big changes on the Council and a great deal of bitterness by some of the losers. There are already mutterings about the legitimacy of the electoral process and about legal action over the way the election has been run. It is not impossible that a body which prides itself on campaigning for fair elections will end up in Court over the way it runs it own. If the reform slate is successful then we will have a very different ERS, spending large amounts of money on the sort of campaigns that groups like Take Back Parliament and Unlock Democracy have run rather than as one reformer describes the current work of the Society ‘academic stuff’.

Whatever happens it will be a very different body than the one the late Enid Lakeman ran for so many years.

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  • I’m still waiting for an explanation of why Ken Ritchie was shovelled out and Katie Ghose – who seems to me to be spectacularly ineffective – brought in.

  • I worked for Arnie Craven in the Leeds office. Will be voting for him, and other reformers. The candidates that don’t mention the AV referendum still have their heads buried in the sand: we lost the best chance we had been given in a lifetime, and if the necessary changes to the direction of the organisation aren’t made, the next time we are given an opportunity we will be equally unprepared.

  • Daniel Henry 17th Aug '11 - 10:26am

    Cheers for that. I wasn’t aware of the reform slate. I’d decided my preferences would go to people who had acknowledged the failure of the YES campaign so this should make it easier.

    Still difficult though – so many candidates, many of them saying very similar things.

  • I am bracing to find the time to wade through the huge pack of paperwork. I thought we Lib Dems were could at execisvly sized bundles of paper work.

  • From my limited involvement in The YES campaign I saw The ERS itself as an obstacle, they werent just useless, their contribution was actually damaging.
    It wasnt just the aged leadership either, most of the activsts I met were very young & seemed fully behind the “progressive alliance” strategy.

  • Keith Sharp 17th Aug '11 - 1:29pm

    There are some misunderstandings here — primarily this one: the Electoral Reform Society was not responsible for the running of the Yes to AV campaign. It is correct that we were major backers, in terms of money donated and staff seconded to the campaign. But the campaign itself was set up as a coalition effort of like-minded groups, from the Society, to Unlock Democracy and Take Back Parliament. It is correct that our CE Katie Ghose, had a prominent role in the campaign, but she only joined in October 2010, by which time much of the essential structure and decision-making was in place.

    My own role (apart from local campaigning in Islington), as an elected ERS Council member, was limited to being a member of a campaign ‘Advisory Council’ — which in the event only met about 3-4 times and was absolutely not involved in any kind of decision-making related to the campaign. It turned out to be a frustrating exercise, seeing the referendum being lost. Some of the ‘slate’ candidates were working on the campaign directly and therefore had more chance to influence things than ERS Council members did. It is frankly wrong to claim that ERS Council members were responsible for the campaign.

    So the Society and the Yes campaign were not one and the same. And yes, as I have said in my election statement, we DO need to learn the lessons of the referendum, although a single page candidate statement is hardly the chance to go into detail. One positive we must take is that we can recruit new members and supporters, so that we are better resourced and energised for the future. That’s one reason why Society membership has grown.

    Keith Sharp

    ERS Vice Chair since 2009; and current Council candidate

  • Simon McGrath 17th Aug '11 - 9:03pm

    @john – thanks for clarifying, sorry for any confusion.

  • Hannah Arnold 17th Aug '11 - 9:28pm

    I honestly think the only way is forward. The council elections are the fresh start ERS needs, with fresh faces and fresh ideas. The referendum was lost, in my opinion, down to one simple thing: people did not want AV. Lets not dwell on the past, and it’s not a case of ‘don’t mention the war’. It’s the truth as I see it. If people had a choice of which voting system to change to we might all be talking about a much different matter.

    As long as the people elected to the council want a positive change and are prepared to work to get it then it will happen, and if that is the case they have my full support.

    The AGM will be very interesting and I am looking forward to it and what will come about from it, so much so I am coming down from Hull for the day.

    By the way, anyone from the Hull and East Yorkshire area who wants to get involved in ERS: email me. Thanks

  • I am one of the former AV campaigners who have joined the ERS recently. I have been watching the run-up to the elections with interest and, at times, with concern.

    “The dangers of this were highlighted by veteran Lib Dem politician Michael Meadowcroft who is restanding for the Council and who unsuccessfully warned the Officers about the danger of entryism if they offered free membership without a waiting period before new members could vote.”

    This in particular was something I have been concerned about. I have seen some campaigning along the lines of ‘join the ERS – it’s free – in order to vote for me’ and I really didn’t like the sound of that, particularly not within an organisation supposed to be concerned with the integrity of elections. I hope it’s been a limited phenomenon (as it seems so from my perspective, and none of the worrying examples I have seen came from people who are now actually standing).

    I am generally impressed with the people on the reform platform but I am also uneasy about the idea of a complete change in one fell swoop. Unlike many YES campaigners, I have a good deal of respect for Auntie ERS. They were involved in the campaign, sure, and clearly were well out of their comfort zone, but I consider the ERS brand (and, let’s be honest, its coffers) as quite an asset for the cause. Clearly, a change is needed, but I’d like to see some respect for the long history of the organiation as well.

    I’d like a good mix of old and new members on the new council, to be honest. It’s certainly going to be interesting to see where this is going.

    The proposal concerning STV is particularly intriguing, I have to say. I think that the single-minded focus on STV isn’t exactly helpful at this point, however wonderful an electoral system it might be (at least for some purposes). There is a wider range of issues which could be within the remit of the ERS without it losing its distinct mission and identity, and I hope to see it branch out a bit, both in the scope of its aims as well as in the range of methods it employs to achieve its goals.

  • Radicalibral 18th Aug '11 - 12:52am

    I am extremely glad this article has appeared in LDV as I thought I might have to write an article myself to try to stimulate debate on this vital issue. The rejection of AV in the vote appears to be the complete antithesis of the riots that occurred last week. Yet in a strange twist brought about by apparent heavy handed justice dispensed to those “purporting” to advocate riotous assembly if that, has possibly made strange and unlikely bedfellows. How is that possible?
    Let me make it clear so there is no misunderstanding, Yes, I am in favour of the full weight of the law being used against the backdrop of the riots against potential murderers, arsonists, looters, and other crimes against the person, and property. No, despite those being present being “guilty” of stupidity I am not automatically in favour of a disproportionate response in sentencing to others associated with the riots unless their action has involved breaking another law as well as being involved in the riots.
    Without seeking to justify the riots in any shape or form there have nonetheless been unintended consequences both during, and after the riots. Young people involved in the riots have been alienated from the older generation. The Judiciary appear to be making Social Policy in their sentencing policy of rioters. Politicians feel they need to be seen to be acting in ways which mean they are not perceived as being “weak” towards dealing with present, and quite possibly any future riotous assemblies (including students?). Our democratic system was tested to the limit during the riots, but potentially is under even greater danger from those wanting to “protect” society, and the need to protect the status quo of society from those most alienated from that society, and who currently may not embrace the merits of that status quo.
    Ironically it is that same wish to see society only run in that one direction by predominantly the older generation that
    lead in part to the rejection of AV in the vote. But it is precisely against this backdrop there should be a renewed vigour for strengthening our democratic institutions and to protect them from being destroyed, or misused. The most precious of all these is our vote, and the representativeness of the voting system that underpins that. If we want to encourage outlets for Civil disquiet, and disobedience other than violence then a truly representative voting system in which people feel they have a genuine stake in influencing events, and exercising power is fundamental. Those who have no stake in society however small, or large that may be may not have any commitment, or feel obligated to observe that society’s value systems. Our First Past the Post system clearly shows deficiencies in achieving that objective. Therefore if we want to strengthen our society, empower “all” of our citizens, and avoid the threat of anarchy through rioting again then changing our voting system is back on the agenda again.
    Can I wish all those involved in the current revitalisation of the ERS the best of luck in the forthcoming elections.

  • Old Codger Chris 18th Aug '11 - 10:32am

    “The man most responsible for losing the AV referendum is Ed Milliband”
    The referendum would have been lost anyway. And since many in his party were opposed his position as party leader would have been weakened if he had campaigned more vigourously.

    “He has no interest in electoral reform beyond AV”
    Quite a lot of people who supported AV dislike PR (just as some of us who support PR think AV is possibly even worse than FPTP). It’s a matter of opinion. Of course, Ed may have calculated that the centerist vote – which tends to be inflated by AV – is now lost to the Lib Dems among Labour supporters and that some Lib Dems unhappy with the coalition would have given their second preference to Labour. Or am I just a cynic?

  • John Heyworth 18th Aug '11 - 11:49am

    There is no doubt that this year’s ERS council elections are vitally important.

    The strong opinions as to “what went wrong” in the YES camp and who was to blame for the errors in campaigning methods employed are in danger of overshadowing an election that will decide the future direction of the Society.

    Of course, the loss of the referendum is important and questions do need to be answered – but, as Keith Sharp (ERS Vice Chair) say’s : “the Society and the Yes campaign were not one and the same.” The questions that need answers are perhaps best addressed to those who played integral roles within the campaign – many of who are now seeking election as “slate” candidates. They had a more hands on role than anyone within the ERS council.

    I do not and will not apportion blame – We all fought on the same side and we lost! We must now move on.

    There are other campaigns (Lords Reform, Votes @ 16 and the increased participation of women and ethnic candidates) to be won. Look forward with the lessons of the past as a guide.

    I am standing in this election, and I am standing because I have a genuine belief in reform – Not reform of the Society, but reform of our electoral system.

    I have cast my vote for those candidates who I believe share my views, some are existing Council members and some are “Slate”, others are neither. My vote has gone to fellow Lib Dems and some whose politics is probably as far away from mine as can be. I hope that, when others cast theirs, they do so with the Society’s best interests at heart. A united society is the only way we can achieve our goals. Factions and in-fighting will not help the cause. I hope all candidates, successful or otherwise, will bear this in mind.

    I am more than happy to discuss my views with any members of the Society, my contact details are in the manifesto booklet.

    John Heyworth.
    ERS Council Candidate.

  • Daniel Henry 18th Aug '11 - 1:33pm

    @ Keith
    Slight correction: The official yes campaign had ZERO input on the reform cat video so shouldn’t even be given credit for that!

    Tbh, I’ve heard too many conflicting accounts on who was responsible for commanding the campaign and making the terrible decisions. All I know is that the moment it transformed from Take Back Parliament to the Yes Campaign it became secretive and shut out all the grassroots creativity that might have saved it.

    Keith, can you tell me exactly how much the ERS Council was responsible for and where it wasn’t responsible, who was?

  • Radicalibral 18th Aug '11 - 6:04pm

    @John Heyworth
    ” I am standing in this election, and I am standing because I have a genuine belief in reform – Not reform of the Society, but reform of our electoral system.”
    Aren’t they the same thing, or least ways if you achieve the latter does it not almost certainly follow on that you have an effect on the former. This is a very important point and by no means trite. It is precisely this case and the unfairness it would cause that was the basis of the No Campaign. Surely as a candidate standing in this election, as I say to all the candidates standing in this election, you must have a more robust answer to this question than the statement you have made?

  • Simon McGrath 19th Aug '11 - 6:51am

    @Mark – just to be clear that comment is mine, not that of any of the candidates.

    I am not sure there is a problem . All of the candidates want electoral reform, they differ how to get there. The fact that the ERS commands such resources means there is more point in trying to control it that there would be if it was just an ordinary pressure group.

  • Old Codger Chris 19th Aug '11 - 12:26pm

    Although I don’t object to the ERS favouring STV (which wouldn’t be my choice) as a democratic organisation keen to empower voters it should surely push for a referendum offering a choice of systems, as New Zealand will do later this year.

  • Thanks Colin for bringing some well-timed rational thinking into this. Its easy to jump on a bandwagon, but much of what is written by the so-called ‘reform group’ just looks like empty rhetoric. Many of the people on this slate were actively involve din the Yes to AV campaign, some as employees, yet they blame the ERS Council, who was not running it for its loss. At the same time they propose to abandon the historical commitment to STV (why?- it didn’t stop ERS supporting the AV camapign did it?).

    The ERS successfully lobbied for STV in Scottish local elections, and needs to do the same for Local Government in England & Wales. Westminster will always be the last redoubt of FPTP, but we can at least work to bring fairer votes in for elections to the Lords and Councils.

  • I see there is still confusion about why the Society was not in charge of the Yes campaign. The reason quite simply is that the Society was just one contributor and partner — probably the biggest, but certainly not the only one — to a coalition of electoral reform interests, which included Rowntree/Take Back Parliament and Unlock Democracy. The Society’s Council took an early decision — around this time last year — that it was crucial to have a united reform campaign. Imagine the gift to our opponents had the various pro-reform movements been seen to be fractured or in dispute; and so the Society agreed it must be part of the combined movement. We recognised this would give us less direct control over the campaign, but judged — correctly in my view, despite the fate of the referendum — it was paramount to have a united pro-reform campaign.

    We had staff seconded; and our CE was in senior role, but she joined in October when the die was largely cast in terms of key strategies, structures and tactics. (The Campaign Director was, as has been well-documented elsewhere, John Sharkey.)

    For the Society, I got agreement that several Council members would be members of an Advisory Council to the campaign, but this met only about four times during the campaign and was mainly a briefing and update from the various campaign directors. I regret that the Advisory Council did not have more teeth, but that was not clear until late on.

    These Council elections will definitely bring fresh people in — several current members are not re-standing, including Colin Rosensteil who has added his own posting to this debate — and so the vacancies are there to be filled by new people. My personal hope is for a combination of continuity and new Council members as the best way to help our recently renewed staff team take the argument forward.

    And whoever gets onto the Council, there is an argument which is still to be won, and which will be won. It may now be the Lords and English local government before Westminster, but the case against FPTP is as strong as ever and will be resurrected next time there is a blatantly undemocratic election result. We just need to be ready — and we have now learned from this referendum and those lessons are being embedded into forward resourcing and plans.

    Two final points: 1) without being hung up on systems, let’s ensure we campaign for an electoral system which gives power to the voter rather than the political establishment; which allows for diversity; which devolves and shares rather than concentrates power; and yes, which delivers proportionate results. And the system which delivers that remains STV and that’s why we support it. 2) I agree with Mark V in finding the apparent motivation of ‘vote for me so we can get our hands on the money’ questionable and even mildly distasteful. I remember campaigning when the Society had literally only hundreds a year to spend — it’s the cause that counts, not just the money. If you’re after the money, try the lottery.

    Keith Sharp
    Electoral Reform Society, Vice Chair (since 2009)
    Current candidate for Council

  • The elections at ERS are both interesting and sad.

    Looking at many of the people and some of the issues brought up, you wonder if this is also not a ‘Bring back Ken Ritchie’ group. If that group gets in, what price Ken as President?

    Now I agree that there are likely to be confidentiality agreements all over the place dealing with his leaving. I’d certainly like to see more of the evidence and also the reason that the police were apparently interviewing staff.

    Yes, it is time to move on although I do not personally think that Katie Ghose is doing anything worthwhile although that might just be me. Certainly the staff who were there during the upheavala are still there.

    Now as to the reform group. Many of them were full-time in the campaign whilst the ERS merely provided money. It is worth saying take a look at http://stvaction.org.uk/

    To turn round and say it was ERS’s fault is perhaps rewriting history.

    The central fault of the ERS Council has been to allow the free membership and the encoragement thereby of entryism. The prize looks suspiciously like entryism to me in order to get one’s hands on the money. Is it a coincidence that some people have suggested a merger with Unlock Democracy?

    Anyway, the Yes in May staff think they can now run ERS. If it is anything like the shambles I saw then perhaps the end is in sight for ERS. Again persistent rumours state that Electoral Reform Services Ltd are trying to go independant and sever the link in the light of the chaos. Is this true? If that is the case then ERS will certainly not have its cash-pile much longer.

    OK so it is easy to be critical. So, what action am I taking:

    1 I am voting against the reform candidates and urging everyone else so to do;

    2 I am hoping they will be defeated and that a new Council will try to complete sorting out the existing staff and issues;

    3 However, if this doesn’t happen and the reform slate is re-elected and Ken becomes Chair and Electoral Reform Services Ltd leave then it will be a rump organisation with no money and a new organisation will be needed;

    4 In that case, I will invite other people to help set up a new version of ERS with a continuation of its academic bias free from the arrant factionalism;

    5 In the case that people take ERS to court over the way it is running the election – old members getting and not getting votes and lapsed menbers being told they can get free votes but not – then I shall contribute to a legal case.

    Personally, I think the whole mess is doing such harm that any AGM should be cancelled until the existing staff and Council have at least got the grace to sort out the membership list.

  • Simon McGrath 22nd Aug '11 - 2:43pm

    @Andy “Again persistent rumours state that Electoral Reform Services Ltd are trying to go independant and sever the link in the light of the chaos. Is this true? If that is the case then ERS will certainly not have its cash-pile much longer.”

    I am not sure I understand this. Don’t the ERS own the majority of voting shares in Electoral Reform Services Ltd? How could they ‘sever the link’ ?

  • Old Codger Chris 22nd Aug '11 - 5:35pm

    @John Cartwright
    “Anybody who does not support STV should resign from the ERS immediately”
    Just as well I’ve never joined then!

    To coin a phrase – it depends what you mean by support. I’m surely not alone in supporting any form of PR that isn’t actually worse than FPTP, while not favouring STV as my first choice.

  • Jim Halcrow 23rd Aug '11 - 7:57pm

    I believe that what STV stands for is a very basic and fundamental Human Right – the right in a Representative Democracy to control one’s own vote in a way that leads to close representation of what one believes in. I am not interested in any shoddy substitute form of democracy. If anyone attacks that basic Human Right, I am even more opposed to them than I am to the BNP.

    I have been a member of ERS since 1956 and I am getting very tired of Entryists who contest the Society’s elections. I no longer vote for anyone who is not prepared to confirm their support for STV. ERS should have an Associate Member category for people who are prepared to work with us but do not support STV, because they believe that the way we vote, or the order in which we vote, should be controlled by a Party hierarchy or for some other reason. I am a supporter of some campaigns that these people are involved in but that does not mean that I have to dip the ERS till to support my campaigns.

    Too many irrelevances have been put forward over many years. The inevitable result has been the de-prioritisation of STV. If we had been spared half of those, STV would have been achieved long ago.

  • I think more pro-AV adocates need to consider the possibility that the British public simply didn’t like AV. I would argue that the timing of the referendum and the choice of AV (both decisions made by the coalition government) are at least as significant as the actual handling of the campaign.

  • There does seem to be a strong series of echoes from the damaging and divisive period from 1998 onwards when ERS was enfeebled through faction-fighting.

    I have voted for a selection of candidates because they are (in my view) the best people for the job – and certainly not because they’re a part of X or Y faction. Part of the damage a dozen years ago was caused by entrenchment on both sides. In any case, life has moved on.

    I do find myself agreeing with John Cartwright on this.

  • Derek Young, I have no idea why Ken Ritchie ceased to be Chief Executive of the ERS. I would not have voted for him if his post had been subject to annual election.

    Mike Bird mentions “candidates that do not refer to AV”. Surely it is more significant whether candidates refer to or do not refer to STV? I supported and voted for YES to AV but I only supported AV as a means of getting voters used to preference voting in the hope that they would want preference voting PR (STV). I have no objection to Parties presenting their candidates in a donkey vote order of their own choosing, on an STV ballot paper.

    What about the people who voted NO to AV on grounds of conscience because they could not see it leading to STV? I have considerable respect for them. I would like them to have an opportunity to tell advocates of FPTP that a large number of people voted NO because PR is what was wanted and is required. I would also like to see a petition in support of these people. Parties that use FPTP to maintain power through an unfair fight need to have their comfort zone disturbed. Bleating about reform being impossible for a generation is not enough.

    I have studied the results of the STV election for the City of Edinburgh Council. 30 Councillors were elected  in 3 member wards and 28 in 4 member wards. In the 3 member wards all places were won by parties capable of winning in FPTP elections. In the 4 member wards the Green Party won some seats, more than their percentage share of the votes but less than all small parties’ share of the votes. Overall, the percentage of seats won by the Greens was lower than their percentage share of the votes. I have not studied the results in the rest of Scotland but in Edinburgh it is clear that small parties can be denied representation by the use of 3 member wards. My Edinburgh results have not been independently confirmed but, on the basis of what I know so far, I would not be able to support a vindictive con trick to damage small parties. I would have liked to have raised this matter at a Conference, in Scotland, to mark the first anniversary of the STV elections but Ken Ritchie seemed anxious to talk down any suggestion that small parties might have been disadvantaged. I wonder whether ERS did a detailed study of all the Scottish results and I would like to have access to these results.
    When FPTP leads to stalemate at Westminster, STV could be used to elect a Coalition with all MPs who support a coalition having a right to vote to elect Ministers or Ministerial Teams. We could have some Ministerial Teams with a Conservative bias, some with a New Labour bias and some with a LibDem bias. Policies could be coordinated through a Ministry for The Budget and Finance. I made a similar suggestion to a consultation on Scottish Devolution many years ago but AMS was chosen instead. The two largest Parties have far too much power already, there is no reason why small parties should have to dance to the tune of one or other of them.

    Do the proposers of Special Resolution 4 intend to sack Council members immediately AFTER they have been democratically elected by members?

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