by Dan Hodges
The No campaign has won. On Thursday, the bid to change Britain’s voting system will be swept aside on a tidal wave of apathy. Babies, soldiers and policeman will sleep safely in the their beds once more.
To those Yes supporters lunging towards your keyboards, save your energy. Your moral outrage at the nature of the No campaign is wasted on me.
You wanted this stupid referendum. You were the ones convinced a grateful nation would make a small change and usher in a big difference. That sweeping away our venal, corrupt Parliamentary system would be as easy as one, two, three.
You blew it.
There’s nothing I’d like better than to claim it was Hodge’s killer baby adverts wot won it. But I wouldn’t be able to maintain that façade for long.
It wasn’t the adverts. Or the “Tory millions”. Or the right-wing press.
The No campaign didn’t win the referendum. The Yes campaign lost it.
It didn’t begin to make a case. Not even close. In fact, it couldn’t manage to get as far as putting on its wig and gown.
Anyone wondering why need look no further than this month’s Progress editorial. Under the headline, “The No campaign has failed to make a positive case to Labour supporters”, it reads,
“A referendum on an issue as complex as changing the electoral system places a special responsibility on the main protagonists to ensure the debate which is conducted is honest and open. Sadly, the No campaign have singularly failed to discharge this responsibility”.
No. The responsibility on the main protagonists was to win the campaign. This was a vote on how we elect our government, not a civics lecture.
If there was an abdication of responsibility, it was from those who forgot that when people propose a change to the status quo, especially a fundamental constitutional change, the emphasis rests with them to make their argument. That’s why in many cases constitutional reform requires a two thirds majority, or a turn-out threshold. Except in this instance, because, though outraged at MPs being elected by thirty per cent of the vote, the Yes camp was perfectly happy to see our entire electoral system reconstructed on the votes of three men and a dog.
Yes supporters began the referendum with the belief that just offering people something new would be enough. Newness always prevails. Then, when they realised that wasn’t working, they decided to try to turn it into a referendum on the first past the post system, rather than AV. Duck houses and moats were the key to victory. When that failed they just lost their heads, and got Chris Huhne to run around shouting “liar, liar, pants on fire”.
At no stage did the actually try to sell AV, the system, on its own merits. Their messages were exclusively defensive, “It’s not complicated”, “It’s not like first past the post”, “it’s not really a big deal”.
In fairness, trying to sell it hard probably wouldn’t have got them very far either. That’s because there was one significant weakness with AV. Nobody actually wanted it.
This obscure fact will be lost over the next week as the handbrake is slammed on, and the car thrown into reverse. Those who once condemned the No camp for insulting the intelligence of the British electorate will instead be roaming the air waves bemoaning that electorate’s capacity to be duped. The voices that at the outset hailed the entire exercise as a means of bringing the people closer to the politicians will be raised in fury at a further staining of our politics.
Please spare us the hand wringing. When are the liberal intelligentsia going to recognize that just because they want something, and don’t get it, it doesn’t mean they were cheated out of it.
It would also help if they realised that pinning on a badge that says “progressive” does not automatically place you outside the political elite and make you a people’s champion. At least not in the eyes of the people.
The most ridiculous part of this morning’s Today interview with Nick Clegg was when he tried to claim that those opposing change were lickspittles of the British establishment, while he and his band of heroic rebels were the modern equivalent of the liberators of the Bastille.
Who does Nick Clegg think he is? Literally. The bloke was born in a place called Chalfont St Giles. He was educated at Westminster and Cambridge. His dad is chairman of a bank. His paternal grandmother was Kira von Engelhardt, daughter of an Imperial Russian baron. He served at the European Commission, then as an MEP, then an MP. He’s currently Lord president of the council and deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom. Just how much deeper into the bowels of the establishment can one man penetrate?
The voters aren’t stupid. The Yes campaign was at least right about that. And they’re wary of politicians. Yes were right about that too. So when someone like Nick Clegg turns up on their doorstep and says, “I know you don’t like people like me. But trust me. I’ve got just the thing to change all that”, you’d better be damn sure they’re buying what you’re selling.
And he wasn’t. An extra copper down your street. A fiver off your weekly shopping bill. A hundred off your council tax. OK let’s talk. A new voting system? He may as well have been selling chocolate fireguards. AV wasn’t a challenge to the political elite. It was their creation.
Because here’s the rub. There is no progressive majority. It doesn’t exist.
There’s potentially a Labour majority. Fingers crossed we’ll see some evidence of that tomorrow. But the progressive’s cause is not the people’s cause. At least not yet.
In this election people were presented with change, or more of the same. They said more of the same please. They were asked if they would like fairer votes. They said no thanks. They were told “Yes we can”. Their response was “I’m afraid you can’t”.
It’s not because they are irrevocably opposed to the progressive case. It’s just that they’re not engaged with it. And the reason they’re not engaged with it is because the people trying to explain it to them are talking in a language they don’t understand.
Trying to sell progressive politics via an AV referendum is like trying to get someone to join a book club by handing them a copy of War and Peace. It is not in any way relevant, or accessible or enticing. The Yes campaign were effectively trying to force feed people the new politics. No wonder they were told to bugger off.
But the mistake will be compounded. As sure as night follows day. No lessons will be learnt. No souls genuinely searched.
Instead the moral outrage will pour forth. The baby posters will be waved like bloodied shrouds. And Nick Clegg will take off his progressive badge and settle back around the cabinet table to plan the next round of cuts.
You had your chance. You blew it. Don’t go crying about me.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.