They don’t like it up ’em, do they?

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 8 April 2011 in Diary
Responding to Laurence Durnan's post on the 'lies' of the No to AV campaign, Tom Harris MP argues that the Yes campaign needs to own up to some untruths of its own

“Yes to AV” campaigners truly expected their self-appointed position of Defenders of Democracy and Doers of All Things Good to be unchallenged during this campaign. After all, opponents of change are, by definition, Enemies of Progress (and I don’t mean that they’re members of Compass). They would surely have the decency to admit to their self-interest and cynicism, even to their dishonesty, as they campaigned to retain the evil, decaying First Past The Post system?


Laurence Durnan used his recent blog to castigate the “No” campaign for being beastly to him and his compatriots in the “Yes” campaign. How dare they raise the prospect that local councils might spend large wads of cash on counting machines if the next election is conducted under the Alternative Vote! Laurence swiftly and efficiently demolished the “No” campaign’s tactic by presenting clear evidence that no machines would be bought... Oh, hang on – I’ve just looked at his piece again. He didn’t. He said “there is no evidence for this”. Well, that’s knocked the “No” campaign for six, then, hasn’t it? I mean, absence of evidence is the same as evidence of absence, yes?

Laurence’s sphincter-contracting outrage at the temerity of the “No” campaign’s allegations would have a little more credibility if the “Yes” campaign had been even a little bit honest in the past few weeks. Yet the spin and deceit continues to be spewed out with the predictability of Lib Dem Focus leaflets containing bar charts “proving” that “Only we can win here!” What, I wonder, did Laurence think of Clegg’s speech in which he claimed that sticking with FPTP would mean that MPs could continue to claim for duck houses? It was an obvious and provable lie, and yet the “Yes” campaign offered no comment.

What about the “Yes” campaign’s claim that AV will abolish safe seats? Or make MPs in marginal seats – already the hardest working people in the Commons – work even harder than they do already? The first claim is demonstrably and mathematically false, the second so absurd I can’t imagine any adult with his faculties intact even trying to justify it.

The claim that AV makes sure every MP wins at least 50 per cent of the electorate’s support is again easily disproved with a modest portion of logic and mathematics. And to suggest that by encouraging everyone to vote for their second, third and fourth favourite parties – in other words, to ask voters to consider who they would like to win if their own first preference does not – is the end of tactical voting rather than an exponential increase in it, is stretching the laws of logic beyond parody.

At one point, Laurence’s outrage at anyone casting aspersions on his campaign’s credentials for sainthood get him reaching for the smelling salts: “While courting their votes, No to AV simultaneously insult the British public by claiming the system is too complicated for them to understand.”

This is a call to the political classes to stick their heads in the sand.

An encounter during last year’s general election campaign returns frequently to my mind. A young woman, perhaps in her late-to-mid-twenties, told me she had never voted before, but wanted to do so this time. The problem was that she was genuinely worried about “making a fool of myself” in front of polling station staff, since she didn’t know how to vote.

The “Yes to AV” campaign dismiss such anecdotes. How could anyone possibly feel intimidated about the voting process? Even to recall my doorstep conversation from exactly a year ago is to invite accusations of “patronising” from the “Yes” campaign. But the fact remains that AV, however straightforward it may seem to those already politically engaged, presents just enough of an incremental increase in complexity to guarantee that that young woman would never even consider attending her polling station.

It is not a lie to point out that AV is more complicated than FPTP; it is an inescapable fact.

This referendum and its subject could not be more about “old politics” if it had been designed by Professor Oldie McOld of the Old Political Institute for Old Politics. The Yes campaign should have realised before now that its attempts to try to spin this “miserable little compromise” (for want of a less polite, more accurate description) as somehow “new” or “progressive” were going to be challenged, and robustly.

Tom Harris is the Labour MP for Glasgow South

Tags: AV referendum, Laurence Durnan, Tom Harris

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