How should the 'Yes' campaign argue its case in the referendum, assuming one goes ahead in May next year?
On Sunday I spoke at an enjoyable Lib Dem garden party in Hackney. The theme was the referendum. Rather than make a campaigning speech to the converted I talked about the larger, uncertain political context and what the consequences of a 'Yes' or 'No' vote might be. I wrote up and posted what I said here.
Bridget Fox, the Lib Dem candidate for Islington South & Finsbury (Labour held the seat) responded, followed by Natasha Chapman from TakeBackParliament who told us we could win a 'Yes' vote if we pulled our fingers out.
A lot of the discussion was about the politics of the Coalition. As an outsider I was warning the Lib Dems of the need for an exit strategy as good as David Cameron's. But the most memorable part was some exchanges on how to campaign for a 'Yes' vote.
Bridget Fox had informally polled people about whether they knew what 'AV' stood for. Only one person knew. Most had no idea or thought it stood for Audio-Visual.
Her conclusion was that supporters of 'Yes' vote should not bang-on about 'The Alternate Vote'. They should simply call for a "Yes to Fair votes".
But everyone was acutely aware that the closest thing to fair votes is proportional representation and this is not on offer. A thoughtful man at the back argued for "Fairer votes". The more I thought about this the more I agreed. It's true that it does not have the right-on clarity of a chant. But I suspect it may be more effective at mobilising than demanding something that is a) not on offer and b) impossible anyway.
The public does not like being fooled, it is both smart and practical, its intelligence should be respected otherwise it will not be used.
Campaigners need to be motivated. We want to galvanise serious people who do not like making childish claims.
The broadcasting media, even when it is not hostile, can't forbear pressing on a weak point to see if those it is putting in its spotlight can take the pressure. Interviewers will simply ask 'Yes' campaigners who call for fair votes, "But surely AV is not fair" Collapse of stout party follows.
However, on its own calling for "Fairer Votes" isn't strong enough. My argument is that the whole referendum has come out of the larger crisis of the political system and popular contempt for its dishonesty and permissiveness. This is another reason why the campaign has to be an honest one - if it is to succeed. But this is also why it is needed: we have a dishonest electoral system that feeds a dishonest politics.
In which case, perhaps the campaign ought to make its pitch, "Fairer votes for an honest politics". Maybe this could be tried out on a poster or two.
Read more about the AV referendum in OurKingdom's Referendum Plus section.