I’m really not sure what to make of this surprising article by Katie Ghose at LeftFootForward. Ms Ghose led the AV referendum‘s “Yes” campaign, and insists that – but for the small matter of being roundly trounced at the polls and hence failing to meet its only real objective – it was a great success (emphasis as in the original):

In losing the vote, we built an extraordinarily resilient movement (more than 150 groups at the last count), who are already regrouping, adapting and rebranding to be ready for the next initiative. From community assemblies, to local government reform, House of Lords and voter registration they are not short on ideas of where to deploy their energies. They also have the benefit of experience that a poor understanding of the issues, combined with killer confusion from the No campaign meant that there was no ‘readiness for reform’. Rather than shut up shop for a generation, many groups are embracing the chance to get stuck into the big issue of public education they felt was needed in the years running up to May 5th. … It is ironic that out of a bitter defeat on May 5th, we have created a standing army already intent on laying the groundwork for future success.

Perhaps all that is true, though I haven’t seen much of the former Yes campaign here in Brighton, which was only 250 votes away from voting Yes. Perhaps there’s a need to rally the progressive troops, and make people who worked hard for the yes side feel like their efforts weren’t in vain. Let’s hope that’s what it is.

I’d suggest two more worrying alternative scenarios from Ms Ghose’s article.

First, 150 groups who “are not short on ideas of where to deploy their energies” are likely to dissipate those energies across every progressive cause from wind farms to Lords reform, and have no overall effect.

Second, in clinging to the slightly patronising idea that people would have voted yes if only they had had the “public education [the Yes campaigners] felt was needed in the years running up to May 5th” the Yes campaigners fool themselves, and confirm every anti-progressive narrative about arrogant middle-class Londoners telling ordinary people what they should think.

It is the job of campaigners not merely to tell the truth, but to expose the untruths or half-truths of others. They have to convince the audience they have – not an imaginary audience with three years of civics education and a disposition to reform. To blame the newspapers or the public is like a fish blaming the water it swims in.

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Written by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Steph Gray

    Is it progressive causes in general they’re rallying for, or electoral and constitutional reform in particular?

    It’s just that, I hazily remember the vaguely interesting, moderately influential role organisations like Charter 88 had back in the day (not ’88, though, when I was more into Lego). There’s the germ of an idea that, with the fairly real prospect of a Conservative(-led) government for the next 8 or 9 years, this isn’t a bad time to start more active lobbying for electoral and constitutional reform. Unlike the last 15 years or so, there isn’t likely to be a government interested in implementing it and thus inadvertently dissipating some of that energy.

  2. Simon Burall

    This approach has echos of the deficit model in science and technology engagement. I noted recently (link at bottom) that I’d begun to spot it all over the place in policy making. Here’s just one more example. It is self-defeating because citizens aren’t stupid, they can spot issues where everything is a shade of grey and there is no right answer. Electoral reform is like that. Any change to the system will have pros and cons. If the reform movement doesn’t trust the public enough understand the trade-offs then the public will conclude that they are being lied to/ told part of the truth and will act accordingly.