The AV debacle, the waste of nearly £2M and the Rowntree Reform Trust

The Yes to AV referendum campaign was a fiasco. Supporters of reform - activists, funders and voters - deserve an explanation. A public enquiry should be launched by JRRT, who took a leading role both in funding and organising the failed campaign
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
17 May 2011

Very serious criticisms of the ‘Yes’ campaign are being published. Cory Hazlehurst, an activist from its Birmingham group, has written a heartfelt personal account in his blog: “The mass incompetency of the Yes campaign ran through it like a stick of rock… This was an epic clusterfuck of a campaign which will go down in the annals of political incompetence.” 

One problem with such cries of pain is that they are all too easily ignorable by the perpetrators. A piece which will be less easy to dismiss comes from the Chairman of the Conservative Yes Campaign, John E. Strafford, in which he described how his party was sidelined from the campaign, along with UKIP and the Greens. But the most sustained critique so far is a potentially devastating document put up on the web by Andy May who was the National Manager of Regional Staff for the ‘Yes’ Campaign. His language is reasonable and measured. He links his critique to the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (JRRT) and the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), as well as Power 2010 that was launched and run by the JRRT in response to the expenses crisis. Andy’s stance has prompted an outpouring of supportive tweets and comments from activists who have reinforced his criticisms. If he is right, then the very campaigns that orchestrated demand for reform in the wake of the revelations of MPs’ corruption and exploitation of privileges in 2009 were themselves perpetuating waste, winking, entitlement and failure of due process in the way they were managed.

Particularly worrying here for anyone concerned with the fate of democracy in this country is the role of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, which is and will remain the strategic funder in the area of constitutional reform, as it is the largest non-charitable trust able to make donations to political causes. (There are three Rowntree entities, see the endnote for the differences between them.) Historically, the JRRT backs the Lib Dems and supported attempts to build a wider democratic movement and without it the UK’s constitutional reform movement would barely exist. It has created a cluster of campaigns and causes that can define the agenda as with the AV campaign. I am going to focus most of this post on the Reform Trust.

Andy May claims to have witnessed the wasting of “hundreds of thousands of pounds” by the JRRT and the ERS. (He exonerates Katie Ghose, who became head of the ERS after the ‘Yes’ campaign started.) He suggests appalling failures by John Sharkey (now Lord Sharkey, made a Lib Dem peer even while he headed a democracy campaign for fairer voting). Sharkey's appointment as the ‘Yes’ Campaign Director was announced by Nick Clegg on 5 July 2010 (see Liberal Democrat Voice ). Andy May emphasises that all campaigns make mistakes, but what is hideously culpable in this case is that “a chorus of voices” warning of significant failures were “repeatedly ignored”. He says that those who remain in employment in the sector are afraid to speak out and some seem to have been warned to stay quiet. He claims that the funding organisations themselves were having their own people employed in questionable circumstances.

I know Andy May, who is 28, from when he was the National Organiser of Take Back Parliament, the ‘purple people’ who put the demand for fair voting onto the streets immediately after the 2010 election. As well as being dedicated, he is transparently fair-minded, careful and judicious. When I spoke to him about his report it was clear that he is motivated by loyalty to the volunteers who worked tirelessly for the campaign, and a feeling that they are owed an account of the way their efforts were needlessly wasted. I had my own slight but jaw-dropping encounters with the incompetence of the ‘Yes’ campaign that I won’t bother to go on about here. I believe Andy when he says that his account is merely a tip of the iceberg. 

This debate matters and not just because those of us who go around trying to make Britain a more democratic and accountable place should be answerable for our actions if we spend scarce resources - be it from Trusts or donations - or draw on the equally valuable, freely given voluntary time of others.

The Foreground

New Labour broke the UK’s historic, centralised constitution but did not replace it with a new settlement; leaving a legacy of far-reaching potentially disintegrative change in an era when deference has collapsed. One result is the threat of a chain reaction that escapes the control of the gatekeeping class to become a movement of indigenous self-rule. In my view the AV campaign was led by the Lib Dems to help prevent this and trap and sap the energy of reform. The proposals on the Lords look as if they will continue the Coalition travesty of political-change-as-closure, now reinforced by the satisfied view of the political class that electoral reform has been shut down “for a generation”.  Naturally, they would say this, as they have a vested interest in fatalistic consent to the way the UK is run. 

But, just as they manage to hose down and stabilize Reactor No 1 in Westminster to preserve it after its expenses meltdown, Reactor No 4 has blown its top in Scotland. The near certainty of a referendum exposes the explosive force of England and the possible break-up of Britain. 

In these circumstances, the need for an independent citizen’s movement could not be greater. It is therefore essential to build its self-confidence and ensure it is not contaminated by the disastrous management it has just witnessed in the AV campaign.

Any such movement will need to break out of the game of disparate, technical battles and ensure that the campaigns for effective reform take place on the inspiring open terrain: the nature of the state, corporate power, marketisation, the national questions, new forms of democracy, the media and power and networked politics. 

Can the ‘ground campaign’ that supported AV in the referendum and built a democratic activist network with over a hundred local groups attempt this with new allies? As Andy describes, it grew rapidly out of the Purple People movement. It has been sustained by that rare breed of party members from Labour, the Lib Dems, Greens and Conservatives who have learnt how to work with each other – as well as by independents, especially from the younger generations. Andy, Cory and many, many others have helped create a humanitarian force that could prove vital to the rescue of democracy in the UK.

This is the foreground to the immediate questions that come out of the massive failures of the ‘Yes’ campaign. Three developments should now take place. They are:

1. The activists should self-determine their own future

The democracy network should become the democracy it calls for. It should decide its own fate and not allow itself to be captured or controlled unless this is its own energetic wish. Of course it will need organisational forms to sustain it and ongoing relations with the ERS, the JRRT as well as Unlock Democracy, which dedicated itself to the ‘Yes’ campaign. Its Director, Peter Facey, has published his personal conclusions. When he sent out his message on 12 May in an email to 20,000 on his campaign list he asked for feedback and got 700 responses in five hours. Fifty-one comments have appeared on the website but as yet there seems to be no commitment to publish them all and let the active campaigners and supporters lead the process of deciding where to go next.

There is a small but important public with an appetite for change that knows how to donate funds. Its anger and disappointment needs to be turned into defiance. I believe it will back a network that is open-minded and principled. It will not support yet another tactical alliance that hinges its campaigns on political parties and works back from their likely or projected behaviour. 

2. The Yes Campaign Budget should be published

For an NGO or a campaign to qualify for trust money, whether charitable or non-charitable, it has to be able to provide audited accounts. If there are any questions of negligence, waste or conflicts of interest, it is always possible for the funders to request to see the books. This functions as a deterrent. But when an ad hoc campaign takes place, what kind of system of controls and accountability is there for those involved? This was a question Henry Porter and I had to confront when we co-directed the Convention on Modern Liberty in 2008-9. It had total revenues and costs of £155,000 [The JRRT was key in starting it and donated £15,000, less than half the ticket revenues of £31,000]. As we succeeded in putting the defence of liberty into the centre of the UK political affairs we can claim terrific cost-effectiveness for the Convention. However, we also had to ask ourselves how those we rallied to the cause could be sure we spent the money honestly. We decided to simply publish a detailed summary of the accounts, saying where the money came from and how it was spent, alongside an independent examiner’s report of the Convention’s expenditures.

The ‘Yes’ campaign should do the same.

[November: The Campaign didn't but it had to report its expenditures to the Electoral Commission and have now published more than the accounts, they have put all invoices on line, which is excellent!]

We need to know that there are basic standards of probity and reporting for future campaigns. Otherwise, as none of us is perfect, a culture of entitlement rather than accountability is bound to flourish. It is all the more important that we who are making demands of our politicians to come clean do this ourselves, or the call for more transparency and democracy will itself be put at risk as being hypocritical. Which means that: 

3. The JRRT should set up an independent inquiry

Andy May refers to the Power2010 campaign, which the JRRT ran and into which it poured £671,000 from 2009 to 2010. After that, the Trust granted the ‘Yes’ campaign a total of £950,000. The JRRT’s own staffer Mark Ross went from helping to run Power2010 to the ‘Yes’ campaign where he became the assistant director. As the JRRT also drew in considerable funds from its charitable sister trust for the Power2010 campaign, it has spent nearly £2 million on campaigns that it itself either created and ran or helped to run in terms of its own directors and staff. Given their abject failure and the swirling charges of culpable incompetence, the Reform Trust directors should arguably offer their resignation. But to whom? They are a self-governing, not-for-profit entity without separate shareholders. In these circumstances, at the very least, they should appoint someone who is experienced and independent to take open evidence and come up with recommendations as to how the JRRT should conduct itself in the future.

It’s not only the activists who deserve an explanation of what happened. The Yes campaign received over £250,000 in small donations from large numbers of supporters amongst the public. And, of course, six million gave their votes. We, all of us, deserve an honest assessment of the lessons to be learnt from the ‘Yes’ campaign. I am not saying that it was there to be won. After Cameron threw the Tories into crushing it, it was not. But why was it lost so badly? What truth is there in the astonishing criticisms now circulating? What went wrong? No one else has the resources to commission such an inquiry (which needs to be independent of the Lib Dems too). A JRRT inquiry should therefore have a double function: what lessons should it learn from the past three years as the strategic funder of democratic reform in the UK; and what lessons might the wider reform movement learn from the failures of the ‘Yes’ campaign and a referendum that had been campaigned for since the early 1990s?

As an enquiry is unlikely to happen, here are my initial suggestions with respect to the JRRT. 

What lessons should the JRRT itself learn?

Its combination of relative wealth and non-charitable status gives the JRRT a unique place on the centre left in British political life.  It was the JRRT, under the Chairmanship of Trevor Smith, which supported Charter 88 in 1989 when I was its first director. Typically of Trevor, it did so after supporting equally all the initiatives launched around that time – including for example ‘Samizdat’, run by Ben Pimlott – in order to see which one worked best. It then backed those strategies that had proved themselves to be effective.

Today the JRRT provides funding for NGOs and campaigns who were recruited to help with Power2010 and the Yes campaign, such as Operation Black Vote and the mainly Labour pressure group Compass. It thus operates as the centre of an informal network of liberal left campaigns, tied together by overlapping political interests and dependence on JRRT support. As well as raising questions of probity, it is very likely this contributed to the “groupthink” of “insider networks” that Sunder Katwala of the Fabians identified in a lengthy and judicious post-mortem on the AV campaign.

There are a number of simple lessons that the Directors of the Rowntree Trusts should draw immediately with respect to their support for democracy in the United Kingdom.

1.      Do not act as both funder and organiser

The role of a funder should be to encourage and then hold to account the causes it supports. If it gets directly involved in running such campaigns, this will raise potential conflicts of interest. It can’t oversee the campaigning actions of its own staff and directors as it is not set up to do this. If the JRRT directors are not satisfied with the campaigns or causes on offer in terms of the change they want to see, they should stipulate what they want and then test whoever steps up to the mark. 

2.    Ensure that democracy campaigns are not party-controlled. 

All campaigns for genuine political reform have to be cross-party and embrace supporters from different political traditions. Inevitably, if the leadership of a campaign or NGO is overwhelmingly from one party, those leaders are bound to be influenced by party interests. The JRRT should do everything it can to ensure that the main campaigns for political and economic reform or for defending liberty are run either by those who are not members of a political party or by an alliance of different party members (as, indeed, was the ‘No’ campaign). 

This is not to say that party campaigns as such should not also be supported. On the contrary, provided they are pluralist in their intent, the more the better – from the Conservative campaign for democracy to the Green Party, there are many that could strengthen democracy.

3.    Fund protest, openness and the release of energy

We won’t have a lively democracy in Britain without shaking the bars of the Westminster system. The JRRT should support experimentation; different approaches, new initiatives and protests. It should follow the energy, not seek to prejudge or stipulate outcomes.  It should back young people who want new-style autonomous networks to become more effective. Without the restrictions imposed by being a charity, the JRRT is in a privileged position to support the outspoken, encourage self-government, invest in internet democracy and back peaceful resistance to over-centralisation and corporate power. It should be doing all these things, expanding the democratic air we breathe. 

There are, no doubt, many more lessons that can and should be learnt from the fiasco of the Yes campaign. This will require a full, open and honest public inquiry – which the JRRT should now set in motion. It is the very least that it can do, given the many thousands who donated their time, energy and support and the many millions more across the country who want reform.


Endnote for readers unfamiliar with the nature of the Rowntree trusts. There are three Rowntree organisations: the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) which mainly supports practical research and publication especially on issues of poverty and social justice; the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT) which supports a wide range of social, peace, racial justice and democratic activities including non-partisan public education. [It has given a grant of £20,000 to OurKingdom this year and has supported openDemocracy before that.] And finally the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (JRRT) discussed above which is not charitable. It pays taxes on its income and it is run by Directors not Trustees. This means it is free to give its money without political restrictions and it is one of the main funder of the Liberal Democrats, to whom it gave £1,230,000 in 2008.) 

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