The Bores Have It

A new book on election reform forgets the fact that voters did not want AV

Have you ever been stuck with The Boring Person at a party? The one who drones on about their stamp collection or their entire medical history or the great deal they got on their loft insulation? Someone incapable of taking the hint to shut up and go away?

I had that impression while I was reading Don’t Take No For An Answer: The 2011 Referendum and the Future of Electoral Reform by Lewis Baston and Ken Ritchie (Biteback Publishing, £9.99).

You have probably forgotten, but back in May the UK had a referendum on whether to replace the current method of electing MPs to the House of Commons with a system called the Alternative Vote or AV. It fell in between the Royal Wedding and the death of Seve Ballesteros, so most people will have missed it. Anyway, the No campaign, for which I worked, won with 68 per cent, which looked pretty emphatic. The authors were on the Yes side. They think the voters got it wrong.

This book is not about the AV referendum. It is not even about how the Yes campaign could have won. It is about how enthusiasts who want to change the voting system will win next time — by not doing anything silly like asking the country to vote on their demands.

The authors are convinced that British politics is “rancid”. They believe Westminster is in the grip of an unrepresentative elite, concerned only with its own self-interest. They have proved their case, but not in the sense they intended. Baston and Ritchie are part of a small faction that wasted £100 million of taxpayers’ money, at a time of public expenditure restraint and job losses, in a referendum on an arcane issue of concern only to themselves, as the ransom price for forming a coalition government — and, because they did not get the answer they wanted, they now cheerfully tell us it can be ignored anyway. As a way of solving a problem, that is comparable to O.J. Simpson’s offer to help the Los Angeles police find his ex-wife’s killer.

There is a massive blind spot at the heart of this book. The authors believe the voting system ought to be changed; they have persuaded themselves their arguments are undeniable; the voters disagreed; therefore the voters must have been wrong; therefore the result in some sense does not count. They provide a lot of excuses. Referendums are a crude device. The Yes campaign were not very good at their job. AV was the wrong choice anyway. So, ram through something else instead as a piece of parliamentary blackmail.

Apparently such behaviour will lead to a healthier democracy. Why must the Yes Men try again? “Democracy, equality and the political empowerment of the ordinary citizen are, we devoutly hope and believe, an advancing tide.” Not if you’re going to ignore 13 million “ordinary citizens” voting No, they’re not. They also devoutly believe that “the intellectual case for reform” is overwhelming. No it isn’t. It got only 32 per cent. That’s very underwhelming.

Like the emperor’s new clothes, it seems that only really special people can see the obvious merits of what they want to sell us. The Baston-Ritchie argument is a little difficult to follow at times. It is not helped by poor editing: the text often cross-refers to charts which either do not appear or which are incorrectly labelled. I am not convinced that following the argument is worth the effort. Sometimes, you just have to walk away from the bore. They won’t get the message, but you don’t have to listen to theirs.

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