Tales from the Phonebank 2 – Learning the AV Referendum Lessons – Canvassing

The Yes to AV team hit the streets of Warrington with dramatic success - then we turned into the road where I was born

One of the key objectives of the Yes campaign was to make as many phone contacts as possible.

I, and the North West team, as well as all the other regions, put in a lot of time and energy in getting people into the phonebanks to try and get the numbers of contacts required to achieve the millions of identified supporters we needed if we were to affect the result.

Imagine our surprise when we discovered that the telephone script we were using was deemed ‘illegal’ by the Information Commissioner!

Unbowed by this important, if momentary setback, we set out to try and meet as many people as possible the old-fashioned way – on the doorsteps.

The first such evening was organised by the campaign organiser in Warrington. Myself and the national campaign manager in charge of making all the contacts duly arrived in the town to go canvassing. Armed with canvas cards, leaflets and posters we set out to test the waters.

After the first main road in Warrington we discovered a most astonishing thing – people thought AV was a good idea! In fact the longer we went on the more posters we were giving out the more we were increasingly bemused that lots of people were considering voting for us. Bearing in mind the polling data at the time it’s fair to say this was quite a surprise.

Then we are arrived in the very road where I was born – Sulby Avenue.

I knocked on the door of the house I was born in. They were in!

Having knocked on the doors of so many supportive people that evening I felt sure that the wise occupants of such a prestigious address (which no doubt will have a blue plaque on the wall one day) would be supportive.

I was wrong, they were voting NO. It was a sign of things to come!

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My personal New Year’s Message to Electoral Reformers from John Ault (Chair of the Electoral Reform Society)

My personal message to electoral reformers for 2012 - it could be an important year of change!

I became involved in politics 25 years ago and one of the main reasons I became involved was because I saw the way that our electoral system doesn’t fairly represent the wishes of British voters.

Becoming involved in the practice of campaigning for electoral reform has actually been a relatively recent thing for me though; when I was employed to be a member of the Yes to Fairer Votes team last year.

Of course 2011 was a bad year for electoral reformers with the failure of the AV referendum. And we are right to re-evaluate if the constitutional reform sector is fit for purpose to deliver its mission.

But 2012 will see, perhaps rather oddly, the first opportunity for all English voters to use a form of preferential voting to elect the new police commissioners across the country. The new voting system, Supplementary Vote, allows voters to rank their top two choices, rather than all of them in AV, and as such does mean there will be a slight, if notable, change in the way the English vote.

It is by no means perfect but if it gets voters used to casting their ballots preferentially that has to be good for the cause of electoral reform, as does the extension of the numbers of cities electing Mayors via the same system. Whatever the pros and cons of either of these new institutions the voting system will be more democratic than first-past-the-post and that has to be progress.

This, to many electoral reformers, will seem a modest change not worthy of attention, but the main prize for 2012 will be reform of the House of Lords. If we can add our voices to this major reform it will be a major, even historic, change. And, if Nick Clegg achieves his objective it will be elected by Single Transferable Vote. This would be a major prize for all of us in the constitutional reform sector and one that we should all put our efforts into over the next 12 months.

Happy New Year and let’s achieve parliamentary reform this year even though we failed in 2011 – it’s up to us.

Tales from the Phonebank 1 – Learning the AV Referendum Lessons – Using Props well

In Chester the campaign to 'Axe MPs' Jobs for Life' took a turn for the worse

I’ve decided now that the referendum was almost last year that it was time to allow people into some of the more amusing aspects of the campaign. I should explain, that as the North West regional organiser of the Yes campaign it was my responsibility to deliver the ‘ground campaign’ in the region.

Although many of us argued strongly for a literature campaign, rather than the phonebanking that was adopted (hence the title of this section), eventually the campaign also focused increasingly on stunts. These ranged from banners, to dressing up as turkies (as they don’t vote for Christmas, like MPs) but this first installment involves an inflatable axe, though to be honest it more resembled a tomahawk rather than an axe.

As the campaign was heavily focused on the argument that Alternative Vote would end the ‘Jobs for Life’ culture of safe seats we were sent into the regions to hold up a banner with the words – “MPs Jobs for Life” and were expected to hold the said tomahawk over the banner, thus expressing the view that MPs jobs for life should be axed.

However, it is fair to say that people of Chester, where we held this banner, were utterly convnced that we were campaigning for “MPs Jobs for Life” and were just mildly bemused by ‘what’s that young man with the inflatable tomahawk doing?’

We didn’t do this stunt again, though we did find other used for the tomahawk/axe!

Office beheadings became a standby activity at times (Highvis jackets were important to maintain Health and Safety)

94% of people think the Electoral Reform Society should be a better campaigning force!

Posting an online poll, on Facebook, normally receives a maximum of 7 responses and usually it is on a subject of tangential interest – well to me anyway.

So, it was with some trepidation that I asked the question:

Do you think the Electoral
Reform Society is in need of reform to make it a more effective
campaigning force for
democratic change?

There has been almost 100 responses now and to be honest I was not entirely surprised that 94% of those responding supported reform in the ERS to make it more effective at campaigning for democratic change, but the level of support did. This, of course, has several possible answers, bearing in mind the respondents are self-selecting. Firstly, that people motivated by reform are much more likely to engage with modern media like Facebook, and conversely those opposing reform do not. Secondly, that I am friends with reformers, and, for that matter, their friends are more campaign focussed that the average person on Facebook. But finally, it occurs to me, it might actually be the level of support for change.

It has been interesting to see the debate on the internet about the future direction of the Society and the different perspectives being presented. The most concerning, for me, is that some of the present incumbents seem to feel the ERS was not ‘responsible’ for the AV referendum campaign. It is rather reminiscent of the Yes Minister discussion about if they were not responsible for spending £1 million of the Society’s money on a campaign that the membership was consulted on and supported, why were they not responsible?

The first UK-wide opportunity to change the voting system, by a referendum, should have had extensive oversight by the ERS Council and should have been led by those that wanted to see electoral reform, even if it wasn’t perfect, namely the ERS.

So, why weren’t they?

I don’t have the answer to that question – it is for them to answer. For my part I did run the campaign in the North West, appointed by Andy May, who is also trying to reform the ERS as part of the team I am a member of. And the result was a bitter disappointment for those that wanted electoral reform, whether members of the ERS or not. We must all take our part of the responsiblity for the failure, but to have had the chance to affect the campaign, and have apparently not taken up the gauntlet, would seem unforgivable!

Why the Electoral Reform Society needs reform!

With the elections to the Electoral Reform Society about to begin a few friends have asked me why I have decided to contest such an election. Normally I am more interested in the cut and thrust of a General Election or a by-election.

Some of this blogs readers will know that I came back into campaigning politics at the end of last year when Andy May employed me to take on the North West region for the Yes campaign in the referendum on AV. Although the campaign was at times totally ineffective and depended far too much on poorly founded concepts of campaigning, the people involved in it reminded me of why I became involved in politics 25 years ago. They wanted change and were going to work their hearts out to get that change. We were all disappointed by the result, that much is obvious, but we were also angry. Angry because the ‘strategic’ leadership of the campaign was poor and really blunted the campaigning effectiveness of the campaign.

I have been told many times by ‘experts’ that we were never going to win, but the problem with such a poor campaign I am not content to simply accept that electoral reform, however dry it may appear to the electorate, was not something that people were happy to support if a good argument was put forward. We did not. And we did not because the organisations which were founded to promote electoral reform were not fit for the purpose that the referendum required of them.

To make them fit for purpose we first start with the Electoral Reform Society, it is the foundation stone of the constitutional reform sector, but has little influence beyond its immediate supporters. The campaign to win the next referendum and to influence government to back STV for local  in England and Wales must begin now, with a purpose of renewal in the organisation.

Firstly, ERS must become a mass membership organisation. Membership has increased massively during and following May, but with membership just over 5000 it can hardly be judged as a mass movement which is going to promote change in these areas.

Secondly, it must have a campaigning focus. ERS has historically been a research based and lobbying group. In an age where politicians are much more affected by direct campaigns aimed at them, rather than being promoted behind the scenes. Just look at how effective people can be in making politicians think again over issues like the sale of forests. It takes co-ordination and leadership and ERS must be the changemaker in this movement.

Finally, ERS must become much more mainstream. I joined the SDP in the 1980s and we slowly learned that going around just promoting PR would not win us the argument. I am committed to STV but we must also attract more people to the cause of constitutional reform and democratic change through other means. Lords reform and votes at 16 are obvious, but we must also engage people who want to see press ownership reform and party funding reform. If ERS can be at the centre of this national campaign of renewal, then ERS will have greater relevance and, as a consequence, there will be more chance of winning the argument for electoral reform when the next opportunity comes.

This is why I am standing for ERS Council.