AE: When did you first get involved with the campaign?

TF: You could say it was when I joined the Liberal Party in 1986. It wasn’t the only reason that I got into politics but it was a major motivating factor. The sense of injustice at the 1983 election which saw Margaret Thatcher return with a 140 seat majority despite getting 40% of the vote and then proceeding to sell-off a whole load of stuff that makes life very hard for us today. For example, we’re trying to roll out broadband across the country now and making a pig’s ear of it. Norway will have 100mb per second for 98% of its citizens by next year and they are able to do so because they didn’t stupidly sell off their telecommunications industry in the 1980s. Thatcher decimated the country in many respect and sold of the family silver when we didn’t have to on barely a third of a vote.

In terms of this campaign, the moment last May we knew we were going to get a referendum we were very excited about it. Of course AV isn’t perfect but it’s a definite step in the right direction. And I was asked by Nick to chair the Lib Dem part of the Yes campaign.

Why has it been necessary to split the Yes for Lib Dems, Yes for Labour and Yes for Fairer Votes?

It's a practical issue about mobilising your troops properly. There’s a Conservative Yes – that’s getting better. But while no MPs have come out for it, I know six Tory MPs who will vote Yes. If you’re in a Lib-Dem/Labour marginal ward somewhere it’s up to Lib Dem activists to get their Yes vote and it’s up to Labour to get their Yes vote out. It’s about making sure you use your ground troops well and making sure people are ‘given permission’ from within their party to come out.

How have you found the referendum?

It’s not difficult. Obviously you’re running a referendum at the same time as other elections which makes it easier because it’s a secondary ask. If you look back over the previous two or three general elections, it’s fairly common for voters to have a second ask, so that’s not particularly problematic. On top of that, people are made aware as you get closer to election day. The evidence from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – less so in England because we haven’t had one since 1975 – is that people are disengaged four/five weeks out and then for the final four or five are not only quite engaged and are keen on getting quite a lot of detail. Just this weekend I discovered a serious change: rather than people looking blankly at you, they actually wanted to engage you in conversation. 

I’ve been speaking to other people in the Yes campaign and they’ve said a big issue is education. A lot of people are not just asking what the Alternative Vote is, but what a referendum is. Have you found it comes down to that basic level?

Certainly on the point of whether there’s a referendum or not, there’s an amount of that out there and that’s always going to be the case. But much of this is down to the press and how much coverage they want to give us. And the presence of an ‘air-war’ is absent on all sides and it’s only just started in the last week or two. From my perspective, my job is to make sure we’re having a ground-war from the Lib Dem perspective and as far as I am involved in the ‘air-war’, so to speak, it’s about working with people in other parties and demonstrate that this is a cross-party campaign and more importantly that this is a people’s campaign and not to do with the politicians if we can avoid it. So there’s an education issue on the fact of there being a referendum and we also have to get across how simple AV actually is because one of the lines of the No campaign is how complicated supposedly AV is. I would argue it’s actually less complicated than FPTP because you don’t have to mind-read what everyone else in your constituency is thinking.

How did you feel about Cameron saying that AV is complicated?

It’s disingenuous. My take on Cameron is that actually he’s a reformer and so are quite a few of his MPs and he’s being advised by quite a lot of young fogeys. I don’t think he really wants to be going down in history as the man who tied us to a medieval voting system. He can’t think that. If he can’t count to three, which is all it really involves, there’s no hope for him. And I believe he can do more than count to three so it makes what he said a bit peculiar.

Basically there are three arguments against electoral reform. One, that AV creates hung parliaments. So do this system. That argument killed. Second, that hung parliaments lead to chaos. This is probably the most vibrant, and democratic and strong parliament in living memory. Argument two killed. The third is that it leads to coalition governments and coalitions are unstable. The current coalition government is absolutely not unstable.

So the three age-old, timer-served arguments against electoral reform have been killed, and have been killed – to give credit by Cameron – in the last 12 months, so they're trying to dig-up any desperate reason, like it will help the BNP. If it helps the BNP, why is Nick Griffin voting No? Why are the Muslim Council of Great Britain and Operation Black Vote actively supporting a Yes vote? And if you’re struggling to count to three, there are lots of other questions to be asked other than whether AV is the right system. And after that, the idea of one quarter of a billion pounds on voting machines. Untrue.

Some see AV as the end goal, but the majority of people I've spoken to see it as a step in the right direction. Which do you see it as?

I definitely see it as a step in the right direction. I don’t think if we win AV it would be right to convince people they should be having another referendum or voting system anytime soon. We certainly shouldn’t. We should see how AV beds in. It’s a fantastically British change: it’s evolutionary. We make democratic changes in this country over time. Voting agecame down slowly and gradually, and women got the vote gradually. The last big democratic change was universal suffrage in the 1920s and this is the next big step forward where we go from having an electoral system which is nominally democratic to one that actually is democratic. It’s not proportional but it means that people’s votes aren’t wasted. A lot of us are conned into thinking we have a democracy: we turn out and vote and it’s like the Queen opening parliament as if she runs it, but she doesn’t. And you going to vote, you might as well not bother. Unless you’re lucky enough to be in a third of those constituencies that might change hands, you might as well stayed at home and even those who voted for the third/fourth parties in those constituencies might as well have stayed at home as well.

We have an electoral system that negates the point of voting in the first place. It’s a very British reform because it keeps one constituency, one MP... and Cameron made the remark the other day that it undermines the link between MP and their constituency. I’m not sure if it’s because he hasn’t read the Bill: it might be that, but it’s clearly not true. It’s exactly the same system we have now but instead you’re voting 1,2,3.

When you started out in 1986, was it always AV or AV+ or STV?

I’ve always liked the idea of STV. Although I think the additional member system in Scotland works pretty well as well. I’m not an STV ultra, I just want a fairer system. It’s about people’s votes counting and the government and MPs of this country actually representing the people out here and not having an elected dictatorship which is what we’ve had. We wouldn’t have had the mass privatisations; we wouldn’t have had the Iraq war if we had a system that actually addressed what people out there wanted.

How did you feel when Ed Miliband said he wouldn’t share a platform with Nick Clegg?

Not surprised. If there’s a local election and Scottish and Welsh elections on the same day and it’s his opportunity to have a dig. Frankly, if we wanted to be petty, we could have had a go backbut this is bigger than any politician.

Would you share a platform with Ed Miliband?

I have already and I don’t mind. Neither does Nick mind that I did. We’ve got to get this off the ground and all the people involved will be forgotten in time. What will be remembered is whether this generation bottled the opportunity for real progress because this is the last chance in our generation we will have to get this through.

Do you find there are dirty tactics going on?

Just look at the No campaigns messages and they are pretty much dishonest and pretty foul. Like I said earlier, most of the substantial arguments against electoral reform have been killed by David Cameron in his last 12 months. And well done to him for doing so. So they’re making up any old rubbish. Some of it’s laughable and some of it’s reprehensible. And I think the indication out there is that there’s a real desire for change. No one is trying to pretend AV is perfect but it’s certainly better than what we’ve got now. The No campaign know that if they can wing, by hook or by crook, a no vote at the referendum, then that’s it for general elections. Their campaign has been pretty disgusting and their messages too, particularly on the BNP.

What about the Yes campaign poster that uses the BNP? ‘Say No to the BNP, vote yes on the 5May.' Is it not using the BNP as a scaremongering tactic?

Well, they are voting no as part of the No vote and it’s an important point to raise. It’s the No campaign who were stupid enough to raise it. It was disreputable to raise it and also witless. First, because it reminds people that Nick Griffin is voting No but more importantly than his intention is what it does to the BNP: it completely isolates them. If you go to Burnley where there are BNP councillors, I don’t think any of them got more than 40% of the vote and FPTP is perfect for an extremist party because in a four or five corner contest can get 25/30 percent of the vote and get elected. Under AV they’ve got no flipping chance because who transfers to a Nazi? I’ve never heard of a lukewarm fascist. You either vote for them first or you don’t. No one transfers to them.

But is it right to put pictures of Nick Griffin on national posters everywhere?

We’re talking about the impact that AV has, and what AV does is it creates consensus. It makes sure people elected are done so with a majority of support from that constituency and it isolates extremist nutters unless 50% of people want to vote for a nutter. But Britain doesn’t do that. It’s actually FPTP that allows extremists in by the back door.

Baroness Warsi gave a speech where she said:"Under AV, the candidate who comes bottom after the first round of voting is eliminated. But the people who voted for that candidate then get another bite of the cherry as their other preferences come into play. So while all the people who backed mainstream candidates only have their first preferences counted, all those people who picked fringe candidates have, in effect, another a second or third bite of the cherry."

I’ve met Warsi a couple of times and she seems intelligent so I'm assuming she’s reading someone else’s words because they are simply untrue. Your vote counts every time.Tthere is a count and to say someone who votes for the 4th/5th/6th candidates has their vote counted more, simply isn’t so. Every vote that is transferred counts every single time there is a count.

She also completely overlooks the fact that people are already doing AV in their head. All the Labour voters in my constituency have already gone through this complicated process in their head trying to second guess which side of the boundary they are on: do we live in Cumbria? We better vote Lib Dem to keep the Tories out. Absolutely stupid. We have AV already it’s just you’ve got to juggle everything in your head before you put the cross on the paper. And if you’re Green and quite like the Lib Dems but live in a Lab-Tory marginal you’ve had to do that twice and you’re already voting for your third preference. Or you forget to do that and your vote is wasted.

We’ve said before that no system is perfect but what’s the most imperfect thing about AV?

That it’s only marginally more proportional than FPTP so you still get majority governments as much as you would under FPTP. But the difference is that MPs forming that Parliament actually have to earn the right to be there. That’s a good start.

I’m currently reading a book that suggests that AV is little better than FPTP because it continues to deliver victory to the wrong party at national level in about 10% of circumstances. If that’s the case, why is it worth changing?

Well it’s an improvement isn’t it? AV would have delivered a balance parliament in February 1974 and May 2010 which funnily enough are the same elections that FPTP managed to do the same thing. One of the beauties of AV is that it’s evolutionary, we don’t have mass upheaval, but you do have a system that’s better than what we currently have. It’s not a proportional system but it’s more proportional than what we have now, it gets rid of safe seats & make’s sure every vote counts and I don’t know why anyone would object to that. All the arguments you’ve presented to me so far are the arguments of the desperate trying to defend the indefensible. And the only reason is, if you’re a lazy MP who doesn’t want to do any work, then vote no and if you’re part of the establishment and don’t like change, or own a lot of papers and want to defend the establishment, vote no. Other than that I can’t think of any reason to vote no.

What about the idea that it encourages more centrist candidates?

It certainly mitigates against extremist candidates but it means you’ve got to get 50% of the vote and if you’re constituency is more left or right leaning it doesn’t matter. I also think the left-right divide is dated. What does it mean? If you look at the Labour and Conservative manifesto and their records over the last 20 years, they have far more in common with each other than they do with us. And eventually people will catch on to that and put Labour or Conservative as their second preference and it’s also assuming we have a three-party system – we have a four or five-party system in much of the UK.

AV can also exaggerate landslides which is unhealthy for representation and the effectiveness of government.

You can only do that if parties that would have won under FPTP, people quite approve of anyway. It wouldn’t have happened in 1983 or 1987. There was a real mood for change in 1997 so maybe that would have happened but it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of any election since the Second World War. But what it would have done is make it more representative, make MPs work harder and ensure every vote counts. The Lib Dems took the view a while ago to stop whining about the electoral system and get on and make this one work for usBut there are some parties, like the Greens: for people who vote for them, why shouldn’t they have their vote count? If you live in Burnley or Scotland why shouldn’t you be allowed to vote Tory? Scotland’s a Tory-free zone. It’s only because of the electoral reform we’ve had there already that there are any Tories in Scotland at all.

Is there anything that strikes you as different from working on a general election?

Yes. First, the air-war is much harder because people are less aware about this issue than they would be about a general election. And obviously you’re working with people not involved in politics, or maybe in your party, whereas in a general election it’s very different. But by and large it’s about getting a message across, trying to get people excited to turnout and also about dealing with misinformation.

How have you found working with your Labour colleagues?

My experience of working with Labour on this campaign is pretty much Westminster-centric. It’s been good and there is growing enthusiasm on the Labour benches. A couple of months ago some on the Labour benches were happy just to say Yes. Now they want to get out and get the message across, to remind Labour voters that a No vote is exactly what David Cameron wants and that it’s about Labour doing something they promised in their last manifesto and which Blair effectively promised in 1997. So this is unfinished business for a lot of them. And it’s important to build bridges. One of the good things about the coalition is that it allows us to behave in a non-tribal way and a collegiate way with Conservatives and remind yourself that people you don’t agree with are quite human after all. The frustrating thing is that Labour has been so sullen about that in the last 12 months and this is a chance to show that you can cut through that.

Is there anything to be read in to the fact that Nick Clegg picked you to run the campaign, someone who is a parliamentary Lib Dem rather than a government Lib Dem?

I’m president of the party so my job is to represent the interests of the party, including the 57 members who happened to be MPs but also the 65,000 who aren’t. A lot of my job has been from this office or my constituency up North, to gee up and manage people around the country, so it’s a party-management job other than someone who happens to be an MP. Even if the president weren’t an MP he should be doing this job.

Isn't it difficult to campaign on a constitutional matter at the moment? Don't people have other concerns that should be addressed more urgently?

If you’re just having a nerdy conversation about electoral reform then perhaps but that’s not what this is about. At a time of austerity, the contrast between that and we’ve still people being sentenced over the expenses scandal, is pretty stark. It’s about keeping your MPs honest and accountable to you and also having to earn your support. I’m not going to pretend it’s top of the list of anybody’s priorities. But having said that, without being hysterical about this, you just have to look at Ivory Coast and Libya to realise that democratic reform is not esoteric, it’s actually pretty flipping fundamental. I’m sure the No campaign will try to use it as a smokescreen, saying there are more important things right now. But frankly, that’s an argument for a dictatorship, not bother with elections at all because aren’t they a nuisance. But they are the essential part of having a democracy. If you’re going to have elections, why not have fair ones.

This is the full transcript of an interview conducted on the 4 April, 2011

Tags: AV referendum, Tim Farron, Yes to Fairer Votes