What will the Guardianistas do if we defy them and vote “no”?

by Dan Hodges

I’m starting to feel sorry for the Yes campaign. Genuinely. They’ve got some good staffers. People with a sincere commitment to their cause.

But they haven’t got a prayer. And the reason they haven’t got a prayer is too many of their  own supporters don’t actually care whether they win or they lose.

Watching the Yes campaign from afar is like watching the Labour party in the late eighties. By then, the harder edges of dogma and ideology had been blunted. There was a realisation that the principle meant little without power. But while there was an intellectual acceptance of the need to secure office, the hunger was lacking. We wanted to win. But not quite enough.

It’s the same with those who are supposedly fighting for a change in our voting system. They’re not actually fighting at all. They’re pontificating. Posturing. Striking a pose.

Get hold of  yesterday’s Guardian leader. “Reformists have just 16 days to transform things”, it warns, “by countering a campaign of unremitting negativity, whose garish posters are explicit in saying that because the NHS matters, democracy doesn’t, and carry the implicit message ‘vote no or the baby gets it’”.

It then points out, “Dismal as the pitch is, it is making in-roads”. No shit Sherlock. You mean negative campaigning actually works? Who’da thunk it?

Having provided a causal link between the skulduggery of the No camp, and a 16 point opinion poll lead, the Guardian concludes its sermon with the following helpful advice, “The yes side must stop indulging in its own fear mongering”.

Great. You’re getting a kicking. It’s hurting. Don’t kick back.

If that’s not enough, just as the Yes campaign tries to grasp  how this “turn the other cheek” approach is supposed to repel the savage No onslaught, up pops Polly Toynbee and gives the rug underpinning their own strategy a vigorous pull. “The Yes campaign has sometimes blundered: it was absurdly demeaning to claim that AV will make MPs work harder”.

Given that is the core argument the Yes campaign has been deploying since their campaign opened, that’s some blunder. It’s also quite late in the day to be pointing it out.

Nothing, however, underlines the fundamental weakness of the Yes campaign more than Chris Hune’s hysterical attempts to cry “foul” on Monday’s Newsnight. Take a look. It’s like watching Claude Rains’ corrupt Captain Renault in Casablanca. Hune was “shocked”, shocked I tell you, at the tactics of the No campaign. He could not remember a lower form of campaigning ever corrupting the body politic. Worst of all, he has “not had the courtesy of a reply” from Baroness Warsi to his countless letters condemning her descent into “gutter politics”.

Just as well. If his letters match the tone of his interview he’s more likely to get a response from her lawyers. Or the Met.

Self-righteousness and moral indignation are a great political placebo. But they rarely win many votes.

Do not misunderstand me. The spectacle of senior Liberal Democrats, historically the most underhand and unscrupulous campaigners of the three main parties, whining about being beaten to the punch, is certainly satisfying. But there are some broader issues arising from the Yes campaign’s strategy that are genuinely troubling.

For example, I thought one of the positive legacies of Blairism was that it had finally put some lead into the progressive pencil. Those countless debates about “should we go positive…should we go negative”, “we mustn’t  be too aggressive, the public don’t like it”, “ya da, ya da, yah”. All that had gone. Once we’d been campaigners. Now we were street fighters. If someone hit hard and low, we’d hit lower and harder.

It’s clear that that’s no longer the case. There are still too many people on the liberal left who think that politics is a spectator sport. Worse, it’s a sport in which only one side, theirs, should play by the Marquis of Queensbury rules. If the opponents play tough so be it. Complain, but don’t act. Go down whinging.

I also genuinely think there were a number of supporters of the Yes cause who thought they wouldn’t need to campaign at all. Where the north London focus groups led, the rest of the country was bound to follow. Swept along on  a wave of liberal intellectual enthusiasm, we would all swarm aboard HMS Purple Revolution.

Staggering as it may seem, there are some issues that require more than an endorsement from Eddie Izzard. But many Yes supporters, as opposed to campaign workers, failed to recognise that fact. The idea that they would  actually have to take their case to the people, rather than simply fling open the hatches of the new politics to a grateful multitude, never occurred to them.

Because that’s what this referendum is really about. Not cleaning up politics, but sterilising it. Re-packaging it. Then placing it back where it belongs, squarely in the hands of the paternalistic middle-classes. The penultimate paragraph of the Guardian leader gives the game away.

“If the shop stewards of the old politics are allowed to prevent it now, they will dismiss all potential future reforms as obsessions of the chattering class”.

Note how it is specifically the  “shop stewards” who must be prevented from  bringing their soiled working clothes into the parlour. How the British public must not, through the exercise of a freely cast vote in a referendum, be “allowed to prevent” this brave reformist agenda.

Really? And what if we do. What if we dare to say No. Think the unthinkable. Turn our backs on modernity and embrace the status quo.

What are you going to do exactly? Hold a dinner party? Write a pamphlet? Attend a seminar?

Be my guest. Meanwhile, the rest of us will move on. Or down. To the politics of the gutter. Where staggeringly mundane issues like jobs, and mortgages and cuts to public services are debated and decided.

And as we do, your tune will change. Having castigated the No campaign for claiming that people are too stupid to understand AV, you will now castigate the people for failing to see through the No campaign’s lies. You will blame the Murdoch press, and the Tory bag men and those venal politicians. And being good liberals, you will reserve special anger for politicians of the left, rather than the right.

But never, at any time, will you look to yourselves. Question whether it might be the people, rather than you, that have a proper sense of proportion and priority. Consider they may be correct in viewing this “small step” as nothing more than change for change’s sake. Dare to acknowledge they are on to something when they say restoring the link between governing and governed requires more than  increasing the number of ticks we place in the ballot box.

No. You will sigh, shrug, and struggle forward. Bravely shouldering your burden. The burden of white liberalism.

Because ultimately, defeat is not an obstacle. It is, in fact, a requirement. It is the only true validation of your sacrifice.

Victory is a luxury you simply cannot afford.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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24 Responses to “What will the Guardianistas do if we defy them and vote “no”?”

  1. Brilliant read and I hope you’re “they haven’t got a prayer” prediction turns out to be the case.

    Can we now all get back to talking about real issues that are actually important to people rather than being distracted by this marathon Lib-Dem inspired knuckle-chewing event? Because it really is getting to the ‘pass the rope I can’t take it anymore’ stage now. Ta.

  2. MBoy says:

    What a lame and bitter article. Schadenfreude wont help us when the Tories are winning majorities again.

  3. David Talbot says:

    What will the Guardianistas do if they are defied and the people vote no? Well, I’ll probably have a quick cry to be honest Dan. But you are in danger of being a 40-something going on 75 year old with articles like this.

    I have already voted Yes and the key rationale behind that decision for me was that AV requires every MP to gain the support of at least half of their constituents; currently only a third of MPs (216) have majority support in their constituencies – the lowest proportion in British political history. AV will categorically ensure that no candidate can be elected who is actively opposed by a majority of voters. That is the norm under FPTP.

    The 2010 result was Labour’s second worst at a general election since 1918, while David Cameron moved into Number 10 with a smaller proportion of support from the electorate than any previous Conservative Prime Minister. This was not a surprise or a one-off. It was the culmination of a decades-long movement against the two bigger parties. Our electoral system ought to reflect that British politics is no longer a binary choice.

    Neither side has covered themselves in glory throughout the debate, but it must be noted that the No campaign have chosen a staggeringly negative platform to campaign from. There have been very little, if any, positive reasons put forward for the retaining of FPTP. The status quo argument seems to be it. If that wins it, fair enough, but I’ll be content that I did my bit arguing for AV. Who knows, I may even write an article in the Guardian about it.

  4. Jon Harvey says:

    Good article – and speaking as some who has been campaigning on the issue since I was 12, a Guardian reader (and writer in a small way: http://www.guardian.co.uk/public-leaders-network/blog/2011/apr/07/nhs-listening-consultation-reform) and a long time member of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform – you press some uncomfortable buttons…

    I will admit to occasional lapses into the dangerously patronising “but the people are just being bamboozled by large dollops of Tory / Capitalist money & the outright lies / distractions / conniving of the #no2av campaign… etc” – it is a fault of mine and I know it. How do I dare to suggest this – when as a democratic socialist, it is the ordinary people I trust and want to give more power to…? And of course I know that in so many political instances, ends can always justify means. I am sure there are many (on the Right and Left) who would have happily carried on supporting the #no2av campaign even it meant them engaging in ritual sacrifice, because the objective of keeping First Past the Post (because it’s ‘British, don’t you know, rah rah’) is supreme. (Or did I miss the ritual sacrifice?)

    Jeepers – I can be so righteous at times. My apologies. It is only the ‘chattering’ dinner party socialists who get to be so righteous of course – I have never ever seen that from other parts of the Left.

    But you see, I do hold by that principle of Gandhi’s of “be the change you want to see”. I cannot speak for all of those who are campaigning for electoral reform, of course. But the ones I know well are doing it to as part of (not, as you attempt to suggest: all of) a strategy to create a new kind of politics which is diverse, inclusive, honest, empowering, fresh, contemporary, cronyless (is there such a word? – or perhaps I should just say less toady)… I could go on. If we were to win using the ‘old methods’ (being deployed so deftly by the no camp) – it would, kind of, be hypocritical…? For me both ends and means are important – as they are inextricably linked.

    So my belief in the need to run the yes campaign so that it reflects what electoral reform stands for in my book – is not some valiant but ultimately foolish quest for self sacrifice and victimhood. In my case at least – it is a genuine and earnest attempt to practice politics as I would like to see politics practiced.

    And I would challenge some of your omissions from your piece. You overlook the significant fact that AV was expertly & brilliantly chosen by the Tories to create as much lack of oomph in the progressive camp as they could. (It is almost as strategically clever as when Sir Keith Joseph introduced the Right to Buy in the early 80’s – which changed the demographic interests of our nation in one sweep. A policy which was not in their manifesto, people will recall, especially those who talk about coalitions bringing in policies that the people have not voted for…)

    And Nick Clegg was daft enough to go along with AV. Most electoral campaigners like me, would have been far happier with AV+ or would even have gone along with STV (the LD & ERS favoured approach). AV was and is a miserable little compromise. No way of getting away from that. Although that said – I think there are some significant advantages to it that I have discovered as I have argued for it. But – and this is a big but – AV is streets ahead of FPTP in so many ways – too many to list here. The one huge advantage it has, is that a Yes vote would unhitch our politics from FPTP forever. This will be so good. (Note: I am still campaigning for a victory – and I still believe the Yes campaign can win – because, actually, I do trust ordinary people…)

  5. Jon Harvey says:

    I would caution against such statements as “You will blame the Murdoch press, and the Tory bag men and those venal politicians” because this may come back to bite you too… By declaring such a thing, you will not be able in the future to use such arguments against any other policies that have gained an electoral mandate that destroy jobs, homes etc. If the #yes2av campaign cannot blame the press etc – nor can you… And heck – who needs any kind of political education activity? Leaflets and books never got us anywhere did they?

    And finally, what is that last passing remark of ‘white liberalism’ – what is all that about? What does that statement say about your politics? Do, please explain more…

  6. Dan Hodges says:


    “But you are in danger of being a 40-something going on 75 year old with articles like this”.

    Not 100% sure what that means, but it’s indicative of why you’re going to lose.

  7. Dan Hodges says:


    I think we have to come up with a better strategy for depriving the Tories of a majority than changing the electoral system.


  8. Dan Hodges says:


    Beautifully written.

    “But you see, I do hold by that principle of Gandhi’s of ‘be the change you want to see'”.

    And without a hint of self irony to boot…

  9. matthew bond says:

    Hey Dan, brilliant article. Yes to AV’s obsession with process is big weakness of their campaign and argument. Thanks again Dan for saying with style what I’ve been thinking.

    Take care.

  10. Londoner says:

    I too have already voted Yes (postal vote) after wavering for the entire campaign. As soon as I looked at the ballot paper and read the question properly voting Yes was a no brainer for me….

  11. David Talbot says:


    It means that with rants like the above you’re sounding like a grumpy old man. And I did, I believe, outline some credible arguments of why AV ought to succeed.

  12. Jon Harvey says:

    Dan, if you knew me better, you would know that I can quote Gandhi completely straightly. It’s a gift perhaps. Or maybe I really mean it….

    And of course, AV / electoral system is not the only strategy to deny the Tories of a majority – I don’t think you will find a single #yes2av campaigner who thinks that. Although, I think you will find quite a few #no2av campaigners who think that… just look at the ferocity that the Tories are piling into campaign. Doesn’t that make you think… just a little? Why is FPTP so important to them I wonder?

    And… white liberalism?

    (And glad you liked the piece.)

  13. Antigone says:

    Spot on. Why anyone who calls themselves progressive mistakes this for a progressive reform is a mystery to me. That we got involved with attempting to give dignity or credibilty to the otherwise humiliating spectacle of Cameron tossing a worthless crust to Clegg is beyond me. AV is not about MPs getting 50% of votes it’s about theoir beoing sufficiently noisy or populist that as well as their own vote they attract the throw away votes of those whose first choice is the most marginal candidate. To dress that up as greater accountability is nonsense.

  14. Frederick James says:

    Splendid article!

  15. Yes2AV says:

    We are praying that Dan Hodges predicts a No victory.

    Help us Dan Hodges, you’re our only hope.

  16. john p Ried says:

    The only partry that promised a referendum on AV at the last election was Laobur who the guardian didn’t back, I could’nt care less if the guardian backs av or is annoyed that some laobur people are agaisnt, The guaridan dicn’t back us, I don’t reads it, and Im voting yes.

  17. Henrik says:

    I’m utterly indifferent to this referendum – it’s already been convincingly won by the ‘No’ campaign (as was always going to be the case) and I hope, echoing Dan above, albeit with different aspirations, that we can now get on with:

    a. Getting HM Opposition to develop some policies and a narrative which might persuade folk to vote for them.

    b. Persuading the LibDems that co-existence of the rump SDP and the former Liberals is probably a time-limited experiment.

    c. Sorting out the appalling mess Labour left in the public finances.

    Could I also encourage any comrades who actually read my stuff not to be quite so bullish about their predictions of disaster if the Coalition continues on its current course? It does look, rather, as if elements of Labour are actually hoping for economic disaster and widespread misery. This doesn’t play well with folk who actually work at jobs for a living.

  18. RichW says:

    Why not discuss the actual issues rather than waste time on negative campaigning?

    There are plenty of people, like me, who will vote Yes on May 5th unless one of these so-called respectable politicians who opposes it can come up with something more than the same old half-truths and non-truths and actually get around to convincing me that FPTP is a better system than AV.

  19. Dan Hodges says:


    Apologies. See I didn’t get back.

    White Man’s Burden – “the philanthropic view, common in Kipling’s formative years, that the rich have a moral duty and obligation to help “the poor” “better” themselves whether the poor want the help or not”.

  20. Josh White says:

    If Dan Hodges is happy to support the continuation of rotten boroughs then he and others in the No Campaign must answer in future for the increasing alienation and frustration felt by many sectors of the electorate. I ask one question: who represents voters of all political persuasions who do not support their MP in a ‘safe seat’ who often endure decades of that same MP regardless of performance, integrity or service? Simply put, AV allows voters to feel that their vote carries more clout and that their voice has more impact. It is a preferential system that allows a majoritarian consensus to emerge.

  21. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Not sure that it’s a problem for the left that the Yes campaign is so useless. Most of the literature and slogans show the influence of Lib Dems and those on the Compass/think-tank wing of the party. I don’t think the latter is a group anybody’s ever identified with tough, street-fighting campaigning and if the former have lost the knack of throwing mud, I for one will rejoice.

    I’ll be voting yes, although I don’t believe any change would make enough difference for it be worth diverting my activism time from Labour to leafletting for the Yes side. I do wish they’d shown a bit more willingness to get down in the mud, go negative, even be creatively misleading (they’ve frequently been misleading, but not with half of the panache for effectiveness of the No2AV campaign).

    Still, I don’t think I’ll be alone in not really caring what the end result is on the day. It’s not a big enough change. Perhaps a lack of enthusiasm might explain the lack of viciousness?

  22. Ray Filar says:

    Given that AV is so much better than FPTP (this convinced me:http://gowers.wordpress.com/2011/04/20/is-av-better-than-fptp/) I just think it is a shame, as you rightfully say, that the YES campaign is so woeful compared to the NO campaign. It seems as if the referendum will be won or lost based solely on the advertising, rather than on the actual voting systems at hand.

  23. Dom says:

    David Talbot wrote:
    “I have already voted Yes and the key rationale behind that decision for me was that AV requires every MP to gain the support of at least half of their constituents”

    I’m sorry to have to tell you, David, that your key rationale is entirely wrong. You seem to be confusing the term “constituents” with “voters”. We do not have compulsory voting in this country and so it is easily possible to win an AV election with the backing of significantly less than half the constituents. The lowest theoretical minimum number of votes required is one. Well, actually zero, since if it’s a tie then lots are drawn, but that’s not really a number of votes.

    Also, the winner of an AV election of more than two candidates does not necessarily require 50% of the vote, since if one candidate is eliminated and some of those votes have no other preferences, they are exhausted; the winner must achieve 50% (plus one vote) of the votes counted IN THE LAST ROUND. For example, if in the first round 20% of people vote for just one candidate and he/she is eliminated, then the threshold for winning is 40% of the original votes cast plus one vote. It will get lower with each round of counting.

    If you’re going to write that article in The Guardian, please make sure you understand AV properly first.

  24. Saul Alinsky has been celebrated since Barack Obama became president, as he was an early influence on Obama. As regards the Marquis of Queensbury rules, pages 35 and 36 of his Rules for Radicals, a pragmatic primer for realistic radicals (1971) states:

    “The ninth rule of the ethics of ends and means is that any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical. One of the greatest revolutionary heroes was Francis Marion of South Carolina, who became immortalized in American history as ‘the Swamp Fox.’ Marion was an outright revolutionary. He and his men operated according to the traditions and with all the tactics commonly associated with present-day guerrillas. Cornwallis and the regular British Army found their plans and operations harried and disorganized by Marion’s guerrilla tactics. Infuriated by the effectiveness of his operations, and incapable of coping with them, the British denounced him as a criminal and charged that he did not engage in warfare ‘like a gentleman’ or ‘a Christian.’ He was subjected to an unremitting denunciation about his lack of ethics and morality for his use of guerrilla means to the end of winning the Revolution.”

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