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27 August 2010

Don’t write off the pro-AV campaign

The movement emerging to fight for a Yes vote will be a powerful voice in demanding change.

By Guy Aitchison

With the bill to hold a referendum on AV yet to receive its first debate in parliament, some people are already writing off the chances of a Yes vote and the possibility of electoral reform.

This is a mistake. For while the No camp has generated some easy headlines and excited Tory bloggers with the news that Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, is to lead the campaign, supporters of reform have been organising locally around the country. Take Back Parliament has well over 20 groups set up across the nations and regions of the UK, many made up of energetic activists of all ages who were inspired by the purple protests for voting reform organised back in May.

You may not have heard about it in the media, but lots of activity is already taking place. A series of educational purple gigs is being held, young activists are manning street stalls in their area (and coming to the attention of local media), and town-hall meetings are being planned across the country. At Take Back Parliament, we’re also planning more flashmobs and rallies of the kind we held back in May.

As we know, the people behind the No campaign are the masters of astroturfing. The Taxpayers Alliance purport to be a grass-roots movement of “ordinary taxpayers”, which creates the illusion of impartiality around them in the media, but in reality function more as a lobby group for the powerful interests that fund them.

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It looks highly likely that the No campaign will rely on similar tactics. Worryingly, there is already evidence of dirty tricks afoot, with the Yes2AV.org domain name having been registered by members of the TPA.

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Without doubt the No camp will be well resourced, thanks to its wealthy backers — people who gain most from the status quo — and it already looks to have the support of establishment voices in the media, but ultimately the battle will depend on who can convince the public. And there, the advantage is squarely with those who want reform.

The first-past-the-post voting system is bust beyond repair. Its “safe seats”, which are no better than the rotten boroughs of the 18th century, breed arrogance and complacency among our political class. A change to AV will allow more choice and remove the need to vote tactically, and would mean millions more votes actually count for something. I think that, far from this being a confusing message, it is one that the electorate, tired of being poorly represented, will understand intuitively.

Some Labour voters, rightly angry that they are not being offered a proportional option, may be tempted to abstain or vote No in the hope of giving the coalition a bloody nose. This would be a tactical error. A vote for AV would create momentum for further reform, while a No vote would kill off the possibility of change for generations. In any case, Nick Clegg has said that the coalition will continue even in the event of the vote being lost.

The referendum will be a historic moment in our politics: for the first time, the political elite will ask for the consent of the governed in how we elect them. The movement emerging to fight in favour of the Yes vote will be a powerful voice in demanding change.

Guy Aitchison is a campaigner with Take Back Parliament and co-edits openDemocracy’s OurKingdom blog.