Asking a different question on the anniversary of AV

Katie Ghose, former Chief Executive

Posted on the 6th May 2012

A year ago the Yes campaign was soundly defeated in the AV referendum. Bad timing, an imperfect alternative and an opposition willing to fight dirty all worked in favour of First Past the Post, and 67.9% of voters opted for the status quo.

However, the vote against the AV was not a vote of confidence in FPTP.

Referendums, by their very nature, tend towards oversimplification in order to achieve clear outcomes. On May 5th 2011 voters were not asked “are you in favour of a more representative voting system?” they were asked “should the Alternative Vote system be used?” – a very different question.

So this year we decided to ask the real question. And, as expected, the results were very different.


“The UK should use a different voting system that would give parties a share of seats in Parliament that more closely reflects their share of votes”




Polling by Populus for the Electoral Reform Society [1]


A year on from AV only 1 in 5 people support the current system. The majority of British voters agree that parliament needs fair votes.

The Society’s goal of a truly representative democracy therefore remains unchanged. We are still campaigning for reform but now we are able to use the lessons from the referendum to inform our approach. The Yes campaign highlighted that it is difficult to persuade people to vote for change if they don’t recognise the problem in the first place, so we are working harder to highlight the problems before we offer solutions.

So how does our post-referendum approach play out in practical terms?

Firstly, we are continuing to push for reform in local government by showing that First Past the Post is unfit for purpose and that there is a tried-and-tested and genuinely democratic alternative.

This week Scottish voters went to the polls, in the second set of local elections since they moved from First past the Post to STV. And once again it meant voters got what they asked for.  No more safe seats, no more uncontested seats, just fair votes for all and a fair share for parties and independents. We won the fight for PR in Scottish local government, and it’s already making a big difference. Voters in England and Wales should settle for nothing less.

Secondly, we’re lobbying the government to make changes that will create fairer politics. Political reform remains high on the government’s agenda, presenting us with multiple opportunities.

For example, Lords’ reform is being debated as we speak. The coalition pledged to reform the Upper House, so we’re holding them to account and pushing for a fairly elected Lords. We’ve exposed the attempt to bring in a self serving system that would have packed the upper house with party Yes men and women. And we’ll keep piling on the pressure.

We’ve also been winning the argument on sweeping reforms of Electoral Registration – some of the biggest changes to the way we vote since the Universal Franchise. Last year we heeded the warnings from the Electoral Commission that changes could mean 10 million disappearing from our democracy. Not only was the government planning to let voters ‘opt out’ from their democracy, millions of people would simply slip through the cracks and off the electoral register.

We’ve taken the lead on this, and scored some big wins. But the government are still ignoring warnings from registration officers and charities who are all saying the same thing: that crossing their fingers and hoping for the best is not good enough. We need a safety net to ensure that millions of us do not lose our say at the next election. The government must rule out the opt out once and for all; otherwise it risks undermining the act of voting as a civic duty. Electoral registers are not mailing lists; they are the nuts and bolts of British democracy. Ending the opt out is a battle we intend to win.

And thirdly, we’re campaigning to bring about change on big issues which are seeing the parties talk and yet fail to take action.

For the first time in a generation the number of women in positions of power is heading south. From cabinet to local government, it’s impacting on every level of our government.  So together with partners Fawcett Society, Hansard Society, the Centre for Women and Democracy and Unlock Democracy we launched the Counting Women In campaign. At this rate even our daughters will be claiming their pensions before they get an equal voice in the government of our country. Wdon’t think that’s good enough, so we’re putting pressure on the government to change the political culture and on political parties to do more to encourage women. David Cameron promised that one third of his minsters would be women by the end of his first term as Prime Minster – so we are petitioning him to make sure he keeps that promise.

The referendum propelled the electoral reform debate into the public arena for the first time since the early 1930s. 6 million supported change, putting electoral reform back on the political agenda and giving organisations like us a much stronger platform from which to lobby and campaign.

Polling shows we have reasons to be cheerful, but now is not the time for complacency.

We’ve regrouped and we’re establishing ourselves as the voice of the voters on democratic reform. From what’s been described as ‘gerrymandering’ of constituency boundaries to party funding, we are leading the debate and holding the politicians to account. Our goal is a level playing field in our elections – and it must be achieved, whether politicians like it or not.

[1]  Weighted sample 2053 British adults.  NET: agree 1058   (52%)  Strongly agree  458   (22%)  Slightly agree 600 (29%)  Neither agree nor disagree 666  (27%)  Slightly Disagree 190 (9%)  Strongly disagree 250 (12%)  NET: disagree 400 (21%).

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