Where next for the democracy movement?

by Emma Burnell

The question of electoral reform is now closed for a generation. Anyone who disagrees with this statement is part of the much wider problem that the democracy movement has.

The movement likes to believe that it listens and that it represents “the people”, but, generally, what that has meant in my experience is that people who agree with the aims of the movement get a hearing as to how their aims might be achieved, while those who question the priorities of the reformers are dismissed as dinosaurs and not engaged with to understand their reticence. And while the movement certainly represents some of “the people”, who deserve a voice as much as anyone else, the inability to grow from a niche to a mass movement demonstrates clearly that it is not the voice of all the people.

At the moment, the blame game is moving quickly. So far we have the mendacious No campaign, the toxicity of the Lib Dems and particularly the childish tantrums of Chris Huhne, the intervention of the prime minister and the split in the Labour party. All of which did – of course – play a part in why the Yes campaign failed. But for my money, the biggest reason the campaign failed is because it was run by people who don’t know the electorate and don’t understand what they want and what they fear.

Most of my friends voted yes to AV (full disclosure, I didn’t) but among them I couldn’t find a single one with a good word to say about the Yes campaign. If even your strongest followers think you’re getting it so wrong and you aren’t listening to them, you have a real issue and you need to think very hard about how you deal with that.

If the democracy movement want to make real and positive changes to the impact of democracy on people’s lives and the engagement people have with the process, they need to do three things.

First I would urge them to take a year off and spend it getting their own house in order. While the campaign for fairer votes was made up of many disparate organisations, those who were at its heart – like unlock democracy, the Joseph Rowntree reform trust and the electoral reform society – need to get an external auditor to look properly at why they are failing to reach beyond their metropolitan support base. They need to look at absolutely every aspect of their organisations and campaigning, from the language they use to their methods, from their leadership to their relationship with their supporters. I suspect the answers will be extremely uncomfortable, but should also be fully implemented. The failure of this campaign shows the desperate need for the movement to get its house in order. This will take time, but is essential and unless they take the time to do this nothing else will be achieved.

Second, they need to stop being an anti-politics movement. Most of the thrust of the campaign was about teaching politicians a lesson and making them work harder. It was negative and that doesn’t really work when you’re campaigning for something. The No campaign had by far the easier job in that respect. But in truth, electoral reform is about improving political engagement which may or may not have a knock on effect on the behaviour of politicians. The honest and hard truth is that anyone who wants to talk about political or electoral reform is already politically engaged. They may be engaged through anger at politicians, but they are engaged. By being anti-politics you denigrate that which you want to improve, which is a confusing and confused message. It’s also mendacious which made fighting the No to AV’s baby and soldier posters harder because frankly you all looked as bad as each other.

My final point is the most important and the most overlooked: There has been far too much focus on how we vote and far too little on if we vote. Whole swathes of the country, and usually those with the most to lose, are disenfranchising themselves by disengaging from the political process. Turnouts are dropping year after year after year. Electoral reform has been offered (rather unconvincingly in my opinion) as a solution to this, but in Scotland they have PR for Holyrood elections and turnout in this election varied from 34.5% in Glasgow Provan to only as high as 62.8% in East Renfrewshire. Given that a change in the voting system is now dead in the water for a generation, perhaps the best outcome of all would be a shift from the democracy movement away from procedural matters that obsess those who already vote back to a focus on the cultural factors of those who don’t.

What happened last Thursday was a massive setback for the democracy movement. This is a dangerous time for them. They could retreat further into their own self-reinforcing bubble, blaming everyone else for their loss, but they could take this loss and use it as a springboard for the rejuvenation the movement has so clearly needed for so long. As democrats, they should listen to the message the people have given them before it’s too late.

Emma Burnell represents the socialist societies on Labour’s national policy forum and is author of the Scarlet Standard blog.

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6 Responses to “Where next for the democracy movement?”

  1. We completely agree with your final point about the low level of voter turnout/general political engagment as being a far greater problem for democracy as a whole than how we chose representatives.

    15 million people who could have voted at the last election didn’t vote (nb only 10 million voted Conservative) a different electoral system won’t change that.

    It will require a joint effort from both elected representatives, candidates, the media, and the public to remedy this.


  2. Ralph Baldwin says:

    Good article, Emma, though there are many reasons why people choose not to vote I find on the doorsteps many people who do not vote but care about issues quite passionately. They are political but not Party political and on the other side of the coin there are many politicians who lack that kind of issue based interest and certainly no interest in the views of people.

    Working out who is more apathetic, the political class or the people as politicians quibble over minor details on policy whilst he public from their professional and personal lives have a great deal to disagree about in terms of what Government does and therefore disinclined to identify with the “weird people” not representing them is difficult.

    The voting system is hardly going to address this and is a symbol of the shallowness and lack of understanding of democracy in Parliament.

  3. iain ker says:

    The basic flaw with AV is that on a ballot-paper which the first preference was not for the winner or the runner-up the ranking of the candidates makes a difference. EG on this ballot-paper the fact that a candidate is ranked as bottom of the preferences counts against that candidate.

    This is not the case for ballot-papers on which the winner or the runner-up was the first preference. The rankings on these ballot papers get ignored. Clearly then some ballot papers are more equal than others.

    The No campaigners inadequately described this ‘some people get more than one vote’. But they were reaching for the truth.

    This is clearly (and let’s use the catch-all du jour) unfair.

    Stupid system and an utterly half-witted idea by the LibDems to waste their own political capital and more importantly our financial capital on this nonsense.

    LibDems – In Government And Out Of Touch

  4. Excellent article

  5. I think you’ve missed the point that for many of us electoral reform was just not the most pressing issue given the current economic & political climate.

    I believe the only reason it went ahead is due to Clegg’s own sense of self importance-been very quite since hasn’t he.
    The timing of the referendum was offensive given the amounts spent on it whilst many of us are suffering as a result of cuts. There are more dire pressing issues to adresss, I therefore abstained as there was no option to reflect this on the ballot paper.

  6. William Bowden says:

    Where next for the democracy movement? simply we do not care how the voting happens its the attitude of politicians in power.
    Communism failed, Socialism became labeled with corruption and silly spending.
    Capitalism well caught cancer of greed.
    So the what next is how we rest to each other.
    Ground rules are needed.
    All people are not equal
    but minimum standards are needed
    NO PERSON in the world should stave,die from ill health, et etc.
    Simple yes?
    Lets start the discussion how to cure the greed stop the wars, calm down the companies that run society.
    The time is now so lets start making the foundation of a human race to be proud of one that looks after each other rewards those that work hard and does not reward those that blackmail there fellow human because they know something you don’t.
    No names but there are a lot of you who’s charges to society for there time is no better than the blackmailer.
    I could go on and will be ignored why because what i propose is too scary for some.

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