Were the masses duped by ‘No’ nonsense?
The pro-AV lobby’s excuses for why people said No in the referendum expose its snobbish intolerance.
On a turnout of 41 per cent, 67.9 per cent of British voters said No to AV in Friday’s referendum and 32.1 per cent said Yes. The reasons for this comprehensive rejection of the alternative vote shouldn’t be too hard to fathom. Not only was there absolutely no popular demand for what amounts to a pretty minor alteration to the UK electoral system, but also the ‘Yes to fairer votes’ campaign waged in favour of it was spectacularly insipid, regardless of the celebrity predictables – Stephen Fry? Check. Colin Firth? Check – paraded around to promote it.
Yet for those members of the political class and their media and campaigning acolytes who remain pathologically convinced that a technical fix will mend a politics-shaped hole, the main cause for their referendum defeat lay somewhere in the vicinity of the Conservative Party’s campaign against AV. Or, as it is otherwise known, the Nasty Party’s Nasty No campaign. This has included posters suggesting that money spent on switching electoral systems would be better spent on incubators for prematurely born babies, frequent attacks on Nick ‘Kick Me’ Clegg, and claims that AV is really, really complicated. Frightening stuff, right?
Clegg – Lib Dem leader, deputy prime minister, and prominent advocate of electoral reform, even if it was the ‘miserable little compromise’ of AV – got his excuses in a couple of weeks ago: ‘The Yes campaign has had to fight a campaign against a headwind of lies, misinformation and deceit’, he told the Independent, ‘and that’s been tough on them’. (The poor darlings.) Energy minister and Lib Dem Chris Huhne has also been upset by having people disagree with him. Slamming prime minister David Cameron for his support of the No campaign, Huhne cried: ‘[He] has had the power to stop these No campaign leaflets saying Nick Clegg has broken promises and told lies. He has done nothing about it.’ Observer columnist Will Hutton simply called the No campaign ‘nasty, full of innuendo, lies and half truths’.
But the pro-AV lobby has not been content with stamping its feet and screaming ‘not fair’. No, it also called for a parent, an external adjudicator, an outside authority, to regulate and rule over political debate, pointing out which side is wrong and which is right. Over at the Guardian, for instance, one AV-supporting commentator was actually disappointed that censoring political campaign posters did not fall within the remit of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). Where’s a censor when you need one, he moaned, as he called upon the ASA to punish the No to AV campaign for its allegedly dodgy political material. ‘What if others decide to follow their lead in the future to smear political opponents? Who would regulate that? Couldn’t anyone with sufficient financial resources exploit this loophole to run ads? Is there nothing that could be done about it even if the [campaign’s] claims were completely false?’ Well, it seems that Huhne, who appears to be intent on putting the ill into liberal, has found an answer. ‘If [the No campaign] don’t come clean on this I am sure the law courts will’, he said ominously.
The growing disdain for the voters among devoted, disillusioned Yessers has been incredible to behold. The more the pro-AV crowd struggles to understand how it failed to win over the electorate, the more it blames the electorate for this failure. The Yessers truly believe that they’ve been defeated by a combination of the easily duped and the nasty No dupers. ‘Shows that money and lies will always keep the power :(’, one Yes campaigner tweeted on Friday. ‘It’s because of lies, ignorance and apathy that our country rejects change’, tweeted another.
The implication is clear. It seems we the people simply can’t be trusted to weigh up political arguments, in this case Yes or No, by ourselves. The rhetoric has been too slippery, the rough and tumble too rough and too tumblesome. Instead, we need help from our betters: judges, perhaps, or quangocrats at some revamped version of the ASA. It seems that at the heart of the current electoral reform lobby, there’s a strongly anti-democratic impulse.
Moreover, there’s something a little distasteful about Lib Dems moaning about nasty campaigns, given they virtually perfected the art. During the 1983 Bermondsey by-election, Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes, currently to be found moaning about the nasty No to AV campaign, found himself up against gay Labour candidate Peter Tatchell. Did Hughes keep the fight clean? Did he play the ball and not the man? Did he heck. In the run-up to polling day, Bermondsey was flooded with 10,000 anonymous leaflets featuring a picture of the Queen next to one of Tatchell wearing lipstick, under the headline: ‘Which Queen Will You Vote For?’ On the doorstep, Lib Dem canvassers reminded constituents that Tatchell was a ‘left-wing extremist Australian homosexual’.
But wait, critics of the No to AV campaign will say: the problem in the AV referendum was not so much the personal attacks on little Nick Clegg, so much as the sheer mendacity. Hence numerous bloggers, twitterers and commentators have been tirelessly pointing out that AV would simply not have accrued the £250million implementation costs the No campaign said it would. As Hughes himself said, a couple of weeks ago, ‘for the last 10 days’ both sides should stick to ‘factual information’.
Ex-Labour minister David Blunkett, a supporter of the No to AV campaign, was admirably unrepentant. ‘We are in the middle of an election campaign’, he said: ‘People in elections use made-up figures.’ It might sound slippery, but there is actually a deeper truth to this statement. Politics is not a debate solely over the facts of the present – it is an argument about the future, too. Imagining future scenarios, or ‘making stuff up’ as some people call it – the kinds of thing Huhne et al want the law courts to have a look at – is an ineradicable and essential part of political debate.
If election (or indeed referendum) campaigns were obliged to deal solely in facts or else face the wrath of the judges, then virtually every election campaign in living memory would be in the dock. In the 1979 General Election, the Tories launched a poster in which the famous slogan ‘Labour isn’t working’ sat over a snaking line of people queuing outside the unemployment office. The ad concluded: ‘Britain’s better off with the Conservatives.’ Now, there were quite a few people at the time who might have doubted the veracity of that statement. And with good reason. Neither ‘Labour isn’t working’ nor ‘Britain’s better off with the Conservatives’ are, strictly speaking, ‘factual’ statements. They are views, opinions. The same goes for Labour’s 2005 election campaign poster featuring 25 years’ worth of Tory leaders alongside the words: ‘Britain is working. Don’t let the Tories wreck it again.’ This is a fact-free assertion. It is, as Blunkett would say, made up.
That’s because it is a story, a putative vision of the future, even if in the case of the New Labour effort it is defined negatively. As difficult as this might be to grasp for the evidence-based, fact-obsessed, show-me-the-numbers numpties currently trying to get political argument regulated (no doubt in their favour), political truth isn’t something contemplative, to be proved one way or the other in the here and now; it is practical too, to be proved in the future. The proof, as it were, is in the pudding. You can argue against a particular vision, a particular idea, but you can’t treat it like a fact, as something that already exists.
However, stuck in a twitterverse, speaking to people just like themselves, the pro-AV crew just can’t understand the main problem with their own campaign: the vast majority of people didn’t care one way or the other about their vision of the future after AV.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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