The drawing-room Jihadists of the “fairer votes” campaign have won

by Dan Hodges

Stop all the clocks. Put away the ballot boxes. Shutter the polling stations.

The great AV debate, which has raged across the land for the last couple of months, is over. The gods have spoken. Thou shall vote yes.

It was fun while it lasted. Actually, it wasn’t. I’ve fought Tories, and wrestled power from their cold dead hand. Been head to head with Liberal Democrats who know more dirty tricks than a Watergate burglar. I’ve even gone up against fascists; real honest to goodness, “Adolf, ‘gord bless ‘im, great lad, little misunderstood”, fascists.

But I’ve never witnessed such a wave of self-righteous, intolerant, self-obsessed,  moral indignation as that cascading from supporters of the Yes to Fair Votes campaign. In fact, Yes to Fair Votes isn’t a campaign. It is a constitutional Jihad.

Leader of the crusade is a man called Jonathan Bartley. He has been prosecuting it with a messianic  fervour. In December, he kicked off by writing the following:

“Once in a while, the church gets a chance to atone for its sins. The referendum on the alternative vote (AV) for Westminster elections is a golden opportunity to demonstrate that, unlike the church of 100 years ago, which opposed the suffragettes, it will back the campaign for a fairer electoral system. The episcopal purple should not be of a notably different hue from that worn either by today’s campaigners, or the women pioneers of the early 20th century. There is a strong theological and ethical rationale for voting for reform”.

Many thought the referendum on AV would be about whether or not we need a new way of counting votes. Nothing so prosaic. According to Yes, whether we put a single preference by an electoral candidate, or rank them in order, is a decision of the same moral magnitude as the emancipation of women.

A few other bold predictions have been made for AV by its champions. It will tackle the world debt crisis. Help end climate change. Combat poverty here in the UK. Some system, that alternative vote.

Sadly, as the campaign has unfolded, the Yes campaign halo has started to slip. Like many fundamentalists, Yes-zealots have a little trouble when confronted with non-believers.

A dedicated web site was established describing a member of the No campaign team as a Nazi. It was popluated with AV in-jokes such as, “The other day I met a German gentleman who always told me he’d voted Green. I’m so relieved that I’m not a Jew”. The Yes camaign merrily tweeted it around.

A poster was produced branding Margaret Beckett, John Prescott and other Labour AV opponents as “dinosaurs”. Which they probably would have welcomed had they not also been photo-shopped next to an image of a grinning Nick Griffin. Oppose AV – Nazi. Get the drift?

Last week, the campaigning started in earnest, with David Cameron and Nick Clegg setting out their respective stalls. This was the cue for Yes to roll out their big guns. David Aaronovitch. Steve Richards. Andrew Rawnsley. The long range intellectual artillery of the Yes campaign.

Crash! “The cynical enemies of electoral reform think we’re stupid”, blasted gunner Rawnsley, “many millions of Britons already have extensive experience of using preferential selection because they have been regular voters in Big Brother, Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor. They not only understand this form of voting; they enjoy it”.  There you go. Electoral change as brought to you by leading constitutional expert, Simon Cowell.

Bang! A second salvo from Steve Richards: “I suspect those who bother to vote, still in a state of anger about MPs’ expenses and now alarmed by the cuts, will take the chance to bring about what will be billed as a “new politics”. Such a move will also place them on the more fashionable side of the argument. Would you prefer to be with Helena Bonham Carter, Colin Firth and Stephen Fry, or Margaret Beckett, John Prescott and Simon Heffer”?

While we pitiful retches in the beleaguered No camp were still reeling from the brutality of the Firth/Bonham-Carter assault, the merciless Richards hit us again, “it seems to me that the Yes campaign has all the populist arguments and cooler supporters”. Here that, all you hep cats? Want to hang with the cool gang? Get yourself down to a Yes phone bank, Daddy-O.

Wallop! Here comes Aaronovitch: “our X-marks-the- spot FPTP system has forced massive tactical voting on the electorate in marginal seats (how many of us have received leaflets advising us that “only” party A can beat party B, so we’d be mad to vote for party C)? Tactical voting alienates the voter from his or her vote”. Don’t you get it? Putting an X in a box means tactical voting, and that’s alienating. Ranking your second, third, fourth, (in the Oldham by-election there were ten candidates, but you get the drift), favorite candidate, and working out what order to place them in to get them elected, that’s not tactical or alienating, that’s principled and liberating.

But enough debate. The great ones have decreed. We shall have AV. And they shall not be denied.

You want it you see. You may not know you do. But you do. It’s been decided. In fact, it was decided a long time ago. Around the dinner tables of Hampstead and Islington.

Back then it wasn’t called AV or the “new politics”. It was called “the progressive realignment”. A strange creature, it was one of the few issues that could prevent the New Labourites and Compassites chuckin organic rolls at one another. The Blairites saw it as way of neutering the left. The Compassites saw it as a way of neutering the right. The inherent contradiction in these positions were lost by the time people got round to the Columbia rainforest arabica coffee.

Unfortunately, Nick Clegg’s Faustian pact with David Cameron put paid to all that. Or it did for most of us. All that slashing public services, throwing people on the dole sort of stuff.

But not the true believers. For them, the flame still burns bright. Vote “yes” and we can still realise the dream. We can build the “new politics” on the rubble of the old right consensus. Or is it the old left consensus? Mere detail. We’ll get to that when the referendum’s won.

But it’s not a referendum really, is it? It’s not actually a way of gauging the will of the people. We know what the will of the people is. They don’t give a toss about AV. They’re too concerned with paying their mortgages, worrying abut their jobs, dealing with the effects of the cuts. It’s why the supporters of AV fought like wild cats to keep the 40% threshold out of the referendum bill. Why Nick Clegg tried to bounce Gordon Brown into introducing AV without a referendum at all.

The AV “referendum” is nothing more than a parlour game for the liberal intellectual left. They don’t want you to worry about the rules, or the cost or the implications. They just want you to shut up and vote yes.

Because it’s their game. And they intend to win it.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour uncut and works for the “No to AV” campaign.

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14 Responses to “The drawing-room Jihadists of the “fairer votes” campaign have won”

  1. Ben Cobley says:

    Dan, some fair points made but how about the odd argument about the, ahem, issues. Like, democracy.

    Surely, a better form of democracy is a good thing? And if you think AV is not a better form of democracy, surely it would be a good idea to put up a few arguments justifying that position, rather than resorting to a pretty unedifying rant about the Yes campaign and how everyone knows what the people think already (which I disagree with profoundly, since they have barely thought about it…so far).

  2. Kieran Thorpe says:

    An enjoyable read Dan, though perhaps overdone in places. I agree its slightly disturbing the wrath “no-ers” or even “not-sure-ers” stir up from the yes brigade.

    Such passion should instead be focussed on the important issues facing us all, the very real prospect of the destruction of our NHS, our Welfare state, and all our public services.

    Then we can all sit down over a fairtrade coffee and argue about such a relatively trifling matter.

  3. Alex Ross says:

    Boo hoo – I’ve seen the tweets you’ve been putting about with inaccurate data from the No campaign on the costs of AV.

    And I hardly think the No to AV campaign, with its adverts that even Guido Fawkes says almost amount to ‘Vote Yes and the baby dies!’ hysteria, is clean on this one.

    The 40% threshold is put in place by people who oppose the referendum, if it was that much a matter of principle they’d put in place a similar threshold on all elections including the general election, but they don’t, why is that?

    You’re a great writer but this is just a big long whinge. Complaining about John Prescott being photoshopped as a dinosaur when your own campaign is putting up soldiers and babies in their posters and implying voting yes to AV will damage their care is unbelievably hypocritical.

    Focus your fire on the Tories and the future direction of the Labour Party – you’re on much firmer ground there I think.

  4. Z says:


  5. Topperfalkon says:

    Nice post, but how about focusing on AV itself rather than the campaign about it?

    It’s not that the public don’t care about AV, only the referendum can decide that. It’s that the public don’t care about either side’s spin on the debate. Politicians have failed to grasp the key issue in that they have failed to regain the trust of the populace.

  6. I must say that I have never felt as though I’m taking part in a more democratic system when I vote in local assembly elections in Northern Ireland. 

    My first experience was in 1998 when I was confronted with 16 names on a [STV] ballot paper. 

    The Northern Ireland labour party (not UK version) were in their death throes at the time but I marked them ‘1’. I can’t recall who I allocated the rest of the numbers to. That’s all they were to me…numbers, not votes.

    There were 2 or 3 candidates down against each of the bigger parties. I spent about 5 mins completing the thing, 1 through to 16. 

    I voted for parties I despised as well as those I’d never even heard of. It was recommended you vote for them all anyway or it in some way benefitted those you didn’t want to get in. That’s what took me so long completing the form, which could have been rolled up like a scroll it was so long. 

    It turned out to be a depressing, withering experience not an enlightening, democratic one. I only wanted 1 party to get in!

    A total waste of time.

    I laugh when I hear people argue about AV being the first step in an ‘evolutionary process’. It appears the ‘YES’ camp don’t want it; not really. They want STV. Or, at least some of them do. 

    Some don’t. Ed Miliband wants AV but not STV, which is a hard thing for me to understand when the purpose of this process is apparently to make democracy fairer through proportionality. Surely STV is more proportional so therefore fairer?

    So I’m left a little muddled as to what the ‘YES’ campaign is really after and, just like anyone who votes 16 times on a ballot paper, wonder how AV or STV genuinely secures it? In any case I’m really not that interested in finding out. 

    In my opinion the logical destination of this ‘evolutionary’ process is that you end up supporting a system of government were ALL parties who get over a certain, arbitrary percentage of the vote at the election get into government and power is shared among those parties.

    Why so, you may ask? Well, if 7% of the electorate vote for the Greens, for example, it’s only fair and democratic that they get 7% of the power, isn’t it?

    Before you know it you end up looking a little like the Northern Ireland Executive with no opposition because although  parties retain that right, they are politicians after all, and want a taste of power and invariably take up their ministries.

    Good luck with that; and be careful what you vote for.

    Frankly, It’s simply easier, more decisive, more honest, less complicated and, yes, more democratic for me to put an ‘X’ in the ‘NO’ box in May and that’s precisely what I shall be doing. 

  7. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    I don’t see the Richards piece as an attack. The bits you quoted seems like an accurate description of the campaign.

    “I suspect those who bother to vote, still in a state of anger about MPs’ expenses and now alarmed by the cuts, will take the chance to bring about what will be billed as a “new politics”. Such a move will also place them on the more fashionable side of the argument. Would you prefer to be with Helena Bonham Carter, Colin Firth and Stephen Fry, or Margaret Beckett, John Prescott and Simon Heffer? … it seems to me that the Yes campaign has all the populist arguments and cooler supporters.”

    Undoubtedly the idea of new politics is popular with a lot of people, for all that (because?) it rarely means anything concrete. Undoubtedly the Yes side has the celebrity endorsement – it’s a very minor change popular in liberal circles, so bon-pensant liberal celebrities will support it, whilst the rest (like more or less everybody else) take very little interest.

    And if the No campaign actually had decent populist arguments, you’d be making them, not indulging in this long self-indulgent whinge.

    There are two dozen good arguments against AV. Any chance the No campaign could actually make them, instead of engaging in exactly the same ad hominem and misleading statistics you’re accusing the other side of?

  8. theProle says:

    I’m mystified by the “no” campaign. Currently they are running ads all over the messagespace blogs which seem very odd.

    1) The whole business of voting on AV is a waste of money. I quite agree, but seeing as it’s happening whatever, I can’t see what I can do about it now… so why should the fact that I don’t think it was a matter worth a referendum influence how I vote now we are having one?

    2) I’m not so stupid (nor do I think many other people are) as to swallow the either / or choices present. The baby in the ads probably doesn’t need Crossrail, university education or palliative cancer care right now, but that doesn’t mean spending money on those things is either a bad idea, or that it won’t happen. The money being spent on the whole AV business (even if we accept the rather dodgy figures from the No campaign) is probably a drop in the vast oceans of government waste anyway…

    That said, it’s not like the Yes side are giving out a strong campaign either – rolling out loads of “celebs” no-one has ever heard of who apparently think it’s a wonderful idea seems a odd strategy to me.

    I suspect the main problem is that no-one actually knows what, if, or how things would be different under AV, in terms of who got elected. Until someone can give hard data on that (and I can’t really see how, as no-one knows the extent of tactical voting at present), I struggle to see how I can make a real choice…

    Yours, currently an AV agnostic…

  9. Steve Hardwick says:

    My view on the yes/no AV debate is based on three basic points:

    1. AV does NOT give you the MP you want: unless he or she is elected with more than 50% of the vote in the first round, a minority of voters get the MP they want and the rest get someone they don’t want, but dislike a little less than all the other people they don’t want either. And unless there is also compulsory voting it is still possible for an MP to be elected without a majority of voters turning out – hardly a popular mandate. So what you get is MPs elected by a minority of voters falsely claiming greater legitimacy than their predecessors. Tosh!

    2. It would entrench the illegitimate and disproportionate influence of minority parties in future coalitions. Sure they may temper some of the worst excesses of the bigger partner, but they may also, as presently, give the bigger partner the extra votes it needs to ram through the worst, most regressive and destructive policies seen since the Thatcher. I’d rather see a minority Government make its own compromises (most American Presidents seem to manage OK with a minority in one House or other most of the time) than give it a free pass to kick hell out of the sick, the young, the poor and the old.

    3. A Yes vote could save Clegg and the LibDems from oblivion.

    No contest.

  10. Ian Stewart says:

    Thanks Dan, as a low paid hotel worker, i don’t often get called “intellectual”, let alone a “left liberal” one.

  11. Richard Smith says:

    I’m genuinely undecided, and I won’t make my mind up on which campaign is more ‘mature’ but I have found Sunny Hundal’s sanctimony and whining almost too much to bear! What if the No campaign had really taken the ‘dinosaurs’ image seriously, Sunny? Are you proud of that one?

  12. trinityboy says:

    The No2AV campaign seems well funded, although we don’t know who by, however their website doesn’t seem resourced to moderate comments. Unless they are just not approving those which are moderately questioning of their position…

  13. Reg Barritt says:

    In terms of healthy democratic practice the AV referendum was a disastrous and horrific failure. Neither the Yes or No campaigns come out of this with any credit. It was turned into a dirty business that saw the campaigners fail to educate in place of which they did much to indoctrinate, cheat, misguide, mislead, distract and destroy the real needs of an increased diverse electorate.

    The Liberal Democrat leadership in its haste to share power and gain cabinet posts take much of the blame for they in the process forgot to adhere to the key principal upon which many have justified voting for them on over the years following the forging of the Alliance with the SDP.

    That principal being to essentially stick to an uncompromising just and fair (‘just and fair’ being the cornerstone of the support given to them by ‘their sort of people’) position on certain key issues in favour of the people rather than the self interests of the cosy Westminster club; in this case a required continued commitment to the need to introduce use of the single transferable vote used in multi member constituencies for UK Parliamentary elections. A long standing requirement ofso many Lib Dem supporters, and the one system in this country the rest of the electorate was and is likely to seriously consider given the chance.

    So many citizens who would have supported this option in a referendum were indeed so angered by the naive and misguided wheeler dealing that lead to the rubbish choice that was offered that, along with similar anger against them and their actions as coalition partners on a couple of other key issues (that caused such devastation to their elected ranks in the local election contest), that they voted NO to AV while wanting STV. Not every NO vote to AV was a YES vote to FPP.

    For its part the NO case made against AV was worthy only of a regime operating in the worst sort of third world banana republic.

    A questionable cartel of interests including such as senior politicians, media moguls and serious reactionaries made sure the process of choosing between AV and FPP was not one that led to a decision based on education and enlightenment but rather on scare mongering and downright lying.

    The Prime Minister made himself party to offering the people this squalid little third rate choice as he along with Nick Clegg chose to describe AV as an alternative to our outdated and unrepresentative FPP system. How cynical, and no choice at all really. It is ironic that Mr Cameron actually came second in the first round of voting for the Tory Party leadership; winning through under AV on second preferences! A man clearly happy to bite off the hand that promoted him, and to deny to others what he is happy to have gained from.

    The PM may feel stronger and more empowered as a result of the overwhelming rejection by the people of AV but he makes a serious error if he does so. Not only Nick Clegg’s credibility but also his own has been seriously damaged by way of the processing of this referendum.

    The outcome for the people is that significant numbers of people in this country are left disempowered and aggrieved and more angry and disillusioned than before; and that has to be a significant worry for those who ask us to trust in the democratic process as it operates in the UK. What has been proven in this sorry affair is that it is not under the stewardship of this government worthy of such trust.

    So there you have it; a view albeit obviously of little worth to this ruling elite from outside the cesspool that is Westminster politics. Sad to say Labour’s elected elite are swimming just as strongly in that cesspool as the rest of the political piranahs hence no hope there either for a necessary, just and fair reform of our outdated and failing FPP electoral system.

    Reg Barritt

    99 Hartington Street

    Chester CH4 7BP


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