There were two depressing aspects to the electoral reform referendum in May. First, of course, there was the result: it was a crushing defeat for the Yes2AV campaign and all of us who support progressive, pluralist politics. Second, there was the US-style negative campaigning and gutter politics engaged in by the No to AV campaign and its parliamentary and media outriders. The No campaign was built on fear, hysteria and lies — and it worked. The British public rejected a system that would have put more power in the hands of voters and reduced, in a stroke, the number of “safe seats” across the UK.
And here’s the thing: the lies were brazen. The former home secretary and high-profile No to AV supporter David Blunkett admitted, on the eve of the vote, that anti-AV claims were “made up”. No to AV, for example, pulled the figure “£250m” out of thin air and then argued that this would be the cost of introducing AV in the UK. One anti-AV poster — proudly conceived by the Staggers guest blogger Dan Hodges — claimed that the adoption of AV would automatically reduce the number of cardiac facilities available to premature babies. It was nasty stuff.
But to witness the Chancellor of the Exchequer, one of the most senior politicians in the land, getting down and dirty in the gutter on behalf of the anti-AV campaign was deeply disturbing. On 12 April, the Daily Mail reported Osborne as saying:
What really stinks is . . . one of the ways the Yes campaign is funded. The Electoral Reform Society, which is actually running some of the referendum ballots, and is being paid to do that by the taxpayer, stands to benefit if AV comes in . . . that organisation, the Electoral Reform Society — part of it is a company [Electoral Reform Services Ltd] that makes money — is funding the Yes campaign.
That stinks, frankly, and is exactly the sort of dodgy, behind-the-scenes shenanigans that people don’t like about politics. The No campaign has asked for it to be investigated by the Electoral Commission and certainly I think there are some very, very serious questions that have to be answered.
But, on Wednesday, the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade noted on his media blog that the Press Complaints Commission’s latest list of resolved complaints includes two items on how Electoral Reform Services (ERSL) had complained about articles in both the Daily Mail and the Sun — both of which carried the Chancellor’s claims — that they said contained inaccuracies. The Mail and the Sun, “to resolve the matter”, agreed to publish a letter from the organisation in print and online (at the foot of the original articles).
The ERS letter pointed out:
Mr Osborne was wrong: the introduction of AV would not have required any additional voting machines and even if it had, ERSL would have gained no financial benefit because it doesn’t manufacture or supply such machines.
Our services to local authorities are limited to the printing and mailing of ballot material and the provision of software for the management of electoral registers.
The Mail and the Sun have been forced to correct their misleading reports. The question is: isn’t it time Mr Osborne is asked to apologise for or, at least, clarify his own dishonest claims?