AV: a lesson in political communication

As I write, the post-mortems on Britain’s bundle of votes this week (referendum on an alternative vote system for parliament, local councils and the Scottish Parliament) are starting.

I have just seen the first – and it won’t be the last – commentary lamenting the failure by politicians to “connect”. This is the politician’s way of worrying about it. If you look at the defeat of the AV proposal through the eyes of the voters, you may conclude that the key failure was a stubborn inability to listen, a mistake made by the politicians. Easy failures to confuse, but not the same.

Look back. New Labour under Tony Blair spent the better part of a decade trying to reform the House of Lords. From that wearisome, grim slog, one simple fact emerged: nobody beyond a very thin stratum of full-time politicians and activists gave a monkey’s. I never detected any particular fondness for, or wish to preserve, the House of Lords in its old form. But I did detect a faint but widespread contempt for politicians who had the nerve to consider this a front-rank priority.

In a democratic system which doesn’t hold plebiscites all the time, voters only have limited ways of passing messages to politicians. Now the electorate has done it again with AV. Voters were supposed to choose between Yes and No. They rejected that choice and sent a different message: do something more important with your time. This isn’t necessarily complacency about the electoral system, just a different ordering of priorities. (Scotland and its degree of autonomy is a quite different local question which voters there plainly do care about).

The voters “connected” all right. They joined the dots and came to the conclusion that politicians – all of them – were wasting their time. They then said so in the only way open to voters when the choice offered is wrong: they said No or stayed away. The turnout may have been “higher than expected”, but that’s higher than miserable expectations which went as low as 10%. Voters send messages which opinion pollsters can’t always read. This message from voters was: you think this is important, but we don’t.


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1 comment

  1. Andrew Bradley

    What’s worse than losing the referendum, Clegg has now set a precedent that would make it harder for a future government to change the voting system without first going to the public, putting it to a vote.

    If, as you say, electoral reform will never be a top priority for the public – least of all at a time of wide scale job loses and decline – then surely it shows a referendum’s unsuitability to settle certain issues.