I got involved in the Yes Campaign earlier this year, because I know that politics in the UK can be better than it is, and believed that the alternative voting system was a small but achievable stepping stone to creating a new kind of healthier politics. It seems what has happened is the opposite, and I fear the British political landscape is now bleaker than it was. Now I know that we have a ‘good’ democracy, in that the UK doesn’t suffer with regular political assassinations and other problems seen in other parts of the world, but what we do have a system that doesn’t work for us. We have Westminster village, an insular space, full of party political squabbling, and a voting system that is not fit for a multi-party society.
I studied politics at university, and had an incredible year working for both a congressman and an MP. It was interesting to experience this, but I was left feeling that the ‘hack’ attitude undermined what working in politics could be, and could achieve. My dissertation was about youth disengagement in politics; the decline of party membership and the rise of consumerism. It concluded in Plato’s cave where we knew that we were watching puppets, but we choose to stay there rather than leave the cave. I decided six years ago that Westminster was not a place that I wanted to be, and was inspired to go on my adventure with design and ethical fashion. Although citizenship has always been at the heart of what I do and I have stayed engaged with the political, I often feel stupid when I try and engage further with Westminster politics, something about the way it is designed makes it difficult for us to join in the conversation.
When I was invited to be a vice-chair and a spokesperson for the Yes campaign, I jumped at the chance. They wanted somebody like me, who understands democracy but whose life is not 24/7 politics. I thought that this conversation and decision would revolve around us, the voter, and felt confident that I could explain why AV was more beneficial for us to the media and to opposing politicians. It’s not a question of policy for which we need specialised knowledge, it is about us deciding if we want to elect our parliamentary representatives by a cross or a few numbers. However, this was not the case, and the conversation seemed contaminated with Westminster politics above the choice of the voter. As you know, the No campaign won this referendum. The press and political blogs have been rife with comment and criticism as to why this is. I am sure with the knowledge of hindsight, there are things that the Yes Campaign could have done better, and I was not close enough to the strategic decisions to understand why some things were done or not done. So I will only talk about my personal experience of being on this journey with the campaign.
I think what sums up this result for me, is a conversation I was having with my opponent, a young conservative, after the debate we did at Benjamin Franklin House the night before polling. He said to me as we were walking to the tube station ‘the thing is, the conservative party know that if we get the alternative vote, they will never form a majority government again. That’s why they are prepared to do anything to make this No Vote happen.’ This fear and need to win at all costs was made even clearer to me at the count where the results were announced. I did a live interview (my first TV interview on AV which I will come back to later) with a No supporter after the results were in. As the presenter asked him what he thought of having won through a negative campaign, his answer shocked me. In a way I admired the honesty with which he spoke, but not the sentiment as he said he was a realist and that negative campaigning was a vital part of politics. He mentioned that it is common in America and that we need more of it here. He said that you have to get a message to people quickly that is short and sharp, and that is what works. I was almost speechless for a moment as I took in how self-assured he seemed that the people didn’t deserve more than that. This is the problem with politics, elections, and as it turns out, referendums too, are about taking votes for party gain, not engaging with the public.
Of course I don’t believe that politicians are ‘bad’ selfish people, in fact most of the ones that I have met or worked with have been hard working, conscientious people that care about their constituents. But then the power of the party comes in, where MPs are whipped to make decisions that sometimes favour the party over their voters. This changes the dynamic of us voting for a representative that works in our best interest. Of course this is part of the reality of politics and democracy, and it’s good that we have a system where we get to have a say.
Yet as you know our current voting system is broken, the result of the last election was decided by just 1.6% of the election in the key marginal seats needed to win. The parties are very open about the fact that they target these seats, as it doesn’t make sense not to, but the result of this is that so many of us are left out of the conversation. The Alternative vote would have changed this, because it would have made all our votes count. It would not have made a dramatic difference to the outcome of elections, there would have been a likely but small increase of coalitions and landslides, but it would have given voters more choice (especially for those of us who are not members of a political party) and would have made it more likely that that the majority in a constituency decides who represents them.
It’s true to say that although this issue got to the very heart of our democracy, there was a lack of excitement from the electorate in the opportunity that we were given. At a time when the cuts have put more immediate issues into our minds, for many changing the voting system was simply not a priority, and they could not see the links between how we vote, and the decisions made that affect so much of our lives. Despite this, what the Yes Campaign achieved was the biggest non-party political ground operation that this country has ever seen.
I think that people voted no or didn’t vote for a variety of reasons; some believe in our current system, some were being loyal to the conservative party, some were angry with Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, some did not like Ed Milliband, some didn’t understand the Alternative Vote, some wanted full Proportional Representation, and some believed the lies told by the No Campaign (that is was going to cost £250million, that it would lead to permanent coalitions, that it would favour extremist parties such as the BNP and that it violated the principle of one person, one vote).
The quality of the debate in this referendum was bad. The constant arguing between politicians, the campaign tactics of the No campaign and making this an issue of what it meant for the current coalition, took the relevance of it away for many people, especially at a time when less than a million of us are members of a political party. The Yes campaign struggled with a media that is privately owned and mostly openly backed the No vote. The idea was to put people up against politicians, including some celebrities. This was where I came in, yet the reality is that I did my first media interview about the referendum after the results had been announced. Since I was announced as a Vice-Chair in February, I had been ready to do interviews with the newspapers, radios and on TV, but none of them would take me. Even though I spoke at our press conferences, launch event and final rally, it was only my leg, or my head behind somebody else that ever made it onto newsnight or the politics show. The media only wanted to talk to politicians or celebrities about the referendum. The lack of normal voters in the mainstream media debate ensured that the conversation resolved around party and coalition politics, leaving out the difference of the experience of voting under the two systems. The Yes campaign had a number of NGOs and charities come forward in support of the Alternative Vote, but they were forced to withdraw their support after the No campaign wrote letters to all of them and the charity commission claiming that they were not allowed to campaign on this issue, meaning that civil society was also removed from the conversation.
I find it sad that a conversation about how we vote, could not be led by us, the voters talking directly to politicians about why we would like to vote with numbers in stead of one cross. I think that the debate that happened turned a lot of people off, who saw it as more of the same, or worse. It’s interesting that the celebrities that came forward in support of the campaign have been victims of discrediting by some of the media. They are after all voters too, in addition to their talent from which they earn their living. It brought my mind to an interesting question: who do we trust to talk to us about politics? Apparently it is not ordinary people, civil society, celebrities or politicians. So who does that leave? I suppose it leaves ourselves, but one of the most memorable questions that I was asked during a discussion at an AV debate I took part in was along the lines of ‘if the alternative vote gives me more choice, what if I vote for the wrong person?’ Apparently some of us don’t even trust our own opinions.
I understand that politics is complicated, and difficult decisions have to be made. Because of this I often find myself defending the position of politicians and the political process. But this experience has shown me that things are worse than I thought. Through this referendum we have accepted negative campaigning as a part of British Politics, and shown that the party political machine still has the power over us. The No Campaign would not have been able to win without the Conservative Party machine and money behind it, which was backing FPTP as it works for them. I often feel naive for wanting more from politics but feel that we have to challenge the status quo. I think that the bigger question that has been raised is of how we engage with politics, and voting, as well as what can we now do to make our democracy fairer and more honest. It is now time to find other ways to make this happen. I am proud to have campaigned for electoral reform this year, and even though when I look back at it now, I see that there was never really a chance of us winning this, I know that it was important to try. The best thing about this campaign was the passion and dedication from all the activists involved, and I know that we will continue to work together to create change.
But now I am dreading voting the next time an election comes around. I would never not vote, the history and meaning of having a right to vote is too important to me. Yet, in the last election, I lived in a very safe seat, so I knew that I could vote for who I wanted to, and although I accepted that it wouldn’t change the result, there was a freedom of expression in that. I now live in a marginal seat, which actually means that my choice has been taken away, as I am forced to vote tactically to ensure the candidate I don’t want doesn’t get elected. Putting that cross in the box is going to be that little bit more soul destroying, knowing that we had a chance to have a better system, but we let the opportunity pass us by.