After AV - a debate on what next

A Lib Dem and an OK Co-Editor strike different notes as they respond to the ruins of Britain's AV referendum campaign
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett Mark Pack
17 May 2011

Mark Pack, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice

Not only for years but for decades I’ve heard electoral reformers insist that campaigning for anything other than AV would be a mistake as AV, or a variant thereof, was the most that the Labour Party would stomach for the House of Commons and without Labour support nothing would happen.

After this month’s referendum that strategy certainly looks a failure, but the logic was not completely misplaced. Had the majority of Labour Parliamentarians backed a Yes vote, the campaign would have looked very different. And had Labour voters backed a Yes vote as heavily as Conservative voters backed a No vote, the result would have looked very different.

There are plenty of arguments that can be had about why things turned out that way (Why was Ed Miliband able to lead so few of his MPs into the Yes camp? Was Nick Clegg right to insist on a 5 May vote? and so on), but looking to the future political reformers risk being placed in a similar situation once again where a compromise ends up lessening rather than strengthening the chances of success.

Proposals for reforming the House of Lords will provide two key flash points for reformers – both genuine political reformers and those who like to talk about being reformers but who somehow always find a reason to oppose change when it comes to the crunch.

The pair of flash points is over what proportion of the Lords should be elected and what voting system should be used. Personally, I would prefer a 100% elected Upper House using STV, but I’d be happy with an 80% elected House (for 80% is so much more than 0%) and one using a different form of proportional representation, if that is what is needed to achieve reform.

The risk, as with AV, is that a compromise proposal is put forward which then far from achieving widespread support both puts some people off in principle, and also provides a convenient excuse for those who aren’t really that keen on reform and wish to oppose the government come what may to claim a principled reason for opposing reform. You can already see the first signs of that over the possibility of an 80% rather than 100% elected house.

The challenge therefore for those in political reform pressure groups is to form a broad and unified coalition - and to use both charm and pressure to ensure those across all parties who talk about liking elections for the Lords don’t then suddenly find excuses to oppose elections.

Anthony Barnett, Co-editor OurKingdom

Mark, Thanks very much for this contribution to our 'After 5 March' forum. It is simple and coherent but it strikes me as odd.

The implication is that the AV campaign was a good try and we should simply try again in the same spirit, only better. This can't be right. A serious defeat took place. If there really is no better strategy this needs to be argued not assumed. Meanwhile, the challenge of the Scottish Spring is for us all to be clear about the nature of Britain and the politics of England. This puts other constitutional issues in the shade and must feed into any reform of the Lords: How will the reform of half our parliament relate to this?

Because, surely, the point of constitutional reform as argued and campaigned for by Liberal Democrats, Labour reformers and independents (like myself) and different campaigns and NGOs since the 1980s is that it takes us towards a better, democratic new settlement. This does not have to be done all at once, but it does mean reform should be done in a radical manner to release further energy and set a different direction.

The AV campaign didn't do this.

There is a crisis of legitimacy in Britain (revealed by the  expenses crisis).  It demands bringing politics closer to the people in a way that, alas, the Coalition is failing to do in a number of significant ways. If you want  "reform pressure groups to form a broad and unified coalition" this needs to be addressed.  Lords reform might do this or it might not but this is not a tactical issue about 80% or 100% elected members.

The challenge is therefore to find a direction and build momentum around which reforms can unite.


You're right Anthony that we shouldn't treat the AV referendum defeat as if it were a close run thing from which which there are only minor tactical lessons to learn. However, the broad lesson I draw from it leads me to the opposite conclusion from you. For me the lesson is a reminder of the importance of a broad cross-party coalition.

To achieve such a broad coalition requires, to use your terminology, both 'thin-enders' and 'thick-enders' to be united. In other words, both those who see reforming the Lords as the thin end of the wedge (leading to more subsequent reforms) and those who see it as the thick end of the wedge (being a one and only reform measure) need to be united against those who don't want any sort of wedge.

Sketching out a comprehensive overall plan of reform may make the logic of the thin-enders position clearer, but it risks therefore putting off the thick-enders. 

Let's fight the battles we can be agreed on first and win those. There are more than enough opponents of reform for us to overcome.


Yes, I think we have a fundamental disagreement. We can't just pick and chose the battles to fight in such a calibrated fashion. More important you seem tosee things from the point of the view of the existing machinery of politics and balance of party forces. Whereas I take as my starting point the potential of the people for self-government (which I believe will be welcomed as soon as it is parctical).

In the UK we have a fundamentally top-down, elitist and undemocratic politics built upon a well honed tradition of ensuring and managing assent to ensure that the state is relatively popular even while it is kept safely out of the hands of the unwashed.

Reformers should be for changing this. But there are of course traditional conservative reformers who want change in order for things to stay the same - as Lampadusa's saying goes. I hope you are not one of them.

There are some reforms which have a dynamic potential but which draw together ameliorators and radicals. Freedom of Information, for example. The lack of this became increasingly impossible to justify and it was conceded reluctantly. But it led to the MPs expenses scandal thanks to the efforts of Heather Brooke who did more damage to the Westminster system than ten thousand print runs of far-left newspapers. The Scottish parliament was another such potentially dynamic reform. Justified as a reform that would kill off Scottish nationalism because it was open it didn't.

Perhaps we can identify these kind of changes still. But I suspect it is too late. Lords reform needs to be approached in terms of the nature of parliament as a whole - of which the Lords in one wacking great half. Personally I have long argued for a mixed upper chamber provided it is not a legislative one as we have at the moment.

But plunging into these arguments now does assume that it is business as usual. Your leader, Nick Clegg, has argued that a massive crisis of political legitimacy followed the financial crash. He sounds much less confident that his reforms are an adequate response. You need to ask, what is the problem to which reforms are the solution?

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