Achieving political reform

Activists must resist fighting their battles for political reform on the grounds of their enemies' choosing. Serious thought must now be given to how to fight on our own ground, to our own strengths, and what structural changes need to be made to make success a realistic hope.

Chris Carrigan
15 November 2012

The fundamental question facing those involved in political reform in the UK is why do we keep losing?  From the AV referendum through to House of Lords reform we have failed to achieve any of the victories that seemed so certain on the 8th May 2010 when over 1000 people marched on Parliament Square in the name of reform.

In the autumn of 2011 following the disaster of the AV campaign I got myself elected to the councils of the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy. I knew at that stage that things were broken but I didn’t know enough to understand the root causes of the failure. Now after just over a year on the inside and with the benefit of having witnessed the Lords Reform debacle I’m ready to start taking positions on what is wrong and what we need to do about it.

My basic analysis is that our strategy as reformers is fundamentally flawed because we have allowed our behaviour and the way that we approach campaigning to be defined by our enemies. This is what those in military circles call “allowing the enemy to get inside your decision loop”. There’s a lovely example of this if you read the detail in 22 Days in May, David Laws book about the coalition negotiation. Oliver Letwin towards the end of the negotiations turns to Chris Huhne and tells him – we will be absolute straightforward and let you have the referendum, then we will beat you in it. Similarly on Lords reform what piece of naivety led us to believe that the Labour Party, which in 13 years of power failed to deliver House of Lords reform, would prioritise the opportunity for change above the potential to harm the coalition.

I don’t in this analysis want to detract from the superb progress that’s been made in Scotland. But frankly Scotland, in the context of devolution, is a special case and the same approach that succeeded there is not going to deliver change for England and Wales. Similarly great work has been done, particularly by Unlock Democracy, through the parliamentary enquiries and subcommittee process. But that progress has been inherently limited by what people in power are willing to let us change.

Outside of Scotland we have allowed the reform conversation to be about lobbying Westminster to deliver changes that they are quite obviously not interested in allowing. We have moved inside the Westminster bubble and become part of the problem not part of the solution.

Make Votes Count and Take Back Parliament along with the grassroots support that mobilised during the AV referendum demonstrate that we do have an activist base. Similarly we should not forget that despite mounting a hopeless campaign in support of a grubby little compromise 6,152,607 people voted for change in May 2011.

We have a just cause, thousands of activists and millions of pounds but we keep loosing. This is because we are fighting in a disorganised way on ground chosen by the enemy.

A winning strategy

In many ways thinking in the activist base is ahead of the organisations leadership. You just have to look at the motions presented to the AGMs of Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society this year to see the level of frustration and the desire for change in the way we do things.  The activists have already picked up on what we need to do – which is to get our act together and go and fight some battles of our own choosing.

To get our act together we have to start thinking of ourselves as members of a Reform Movement.  That movement is made up of many organisations and individuals but we have common cause and the only way we will achieve our objectives is together. Without a concept of a movement we are just a bunch of disparate and unfocused special interest groups. We also have to start nurturing and growing the activist base within that movement.  This is difficult, expensive and only pays off in the long term. But without a grassroots base we will continue to be just another self perpetuating Westminster lobby group.

We also have to shift the battleground into places where we have the advantage.  The best current example of this is STV for local government.  With LGSTV already in place and successful in Scotland it is very difficult for our opponents to argue that it doesn’t work. It’s also a great opportunity to get our messages across and grow support amongst the counsellors, who are a critically important part of most political parties. That’s just one example, there are many other interesting places we could go if we decided it was our turn to set the agenda.

Designed to win

If you study organisational design there is a recurring pattern to organisations that successfully deliver their strategy.  They understand the fundamental capabilities that are needed to deliver the strategy and they set out to purposefully develop those capabilities in terms of their people, processes and structure.  The most powerful structures are built from a network of collaborating organisations each playing a distinct role, based upon specific capabilities organised to achieve a common intent.

If we look at the reform movement in the same way it is obvious what is wrong.  The capabilities for building and sustaining the people in our activist base are woefully inadequate; the internal processes and structures that I’ve seen in the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy are optimised for lobbying and there are still very few people that can engage in a conversation about the roles the various pieces of the reform movement are currently performing, let alone what they should be doing.

On building our activist base the momentum for change is already there.  The motion on local groups proposed to Unlock Democracy’s AGM by Danny Zinkus-Sutton, the very different approach to local groups now being taken by the Electoral Reform Society’s new council and the planned activist conference next February are all good indications of intent. The revitalisation of reform groups within the political parties is also a very promising sign.  But these are still all preliminary steps.  We have to turn these intentions into delivery. We must take the building of the activist base seriously and put a lot more of our resources behind it.

We also have to completely revisit the way we do things.  The Local Government STV campaign that the Electoral Reform Society is hopefully about to launch will be an excellent opportunity to do this. Once people realise that this change isn’t going to be delivered by lobbying the Parliamentary Labour Party to put it in their manifesto, the limitations of our existing process and structure will be obvious. I’m very hopeful that the ERS AGM will pass a binding resolution requiring the society to make STV for local government its top priority. The society will then have to face this challenge by transforming itself to deliver on that priority.

The conversation about roles within the reform movement is also beginning to happen.  Partly because I keep insisting on having it, but mostly because for anyone who has been through the AV referendum and Lords reform experiences the need to take the long view and build a much stronger reform movement is obvious.

A critical year

My own personal view is that, given where we are now, achieving all of our reform objectives is a 20 to 30 year job. I’m becoming increasingly mindful that 2013 is the 175th anniversary of the People’s charter of 1838.

The opening of that Charter said

We hold it to be an axiom in politics, that self-government by representation is the only just foundation of political power the only true basis of constitutional rights and the only legitimate parent of good laws

Our society has come a long way since the oppressive days of the early 19th-century but it’s startling that more than a decade into the 21st century our democracy still has many of the ills those chartists fought against. I’d like us during 2013 to commit to creating a broad based large scale reform movement that can by 2038 the 200th anniversary of the Peoples Charter deliver the radical and irresistible change required to make British Democracy something to be proud of.


Cross-posted with thanks from Reform 2038

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