Report of Electoral Reform Society Annual General Meeting

Geoff Gay reports on the AGM held on September 7th  2013

I want to start this report with what I found to be the most inspiring part of the meeting, hosted by an organisation called  Bite the Ballot which is about empowering young people ( particularly those “furthest from politics” ), encouraging them to vote and get involved in politics, and championing their voices in Westminster.  Mike Sani, Director of Bite the Ballot told us that, up to the age of 27 ( his age at the 2010 general election ), like many young people, he had not even registered to vote. At that election, only 54% of 18-24 year-olds were registered and only 44% of those voted, so that only about 24% of that age group actually turned out to vote !  At that point, an older work colleague convinced him that the issues he bothered about were political. Mevan Babakar, another Bite the Ballot worker, explained the three strands of their work :
Policy :  Young people are generally interested in specific campaigns but say they are not interested in politics . To convince them that politics is the way to achieve their aims, the “My Manifesto” project connects issues with politics. The Manifesto has been compiled from responses from a sample of 5000 young people. On their website, I have signed up to receive their updates and had a good look at the Manifesto which contains detailed and attractively-presented sections on Education ( starting with political education ), Health, Jobs, Transport, Housing plus Police and Crime. Rather than go into detail here, I would recommend all readers of this report to do what I did and would also recommend our Unlock Democracy group to pick this up in some way.
Voter Registration :  Bite the Ballot has already helped thousands of young people to register.  From July 2014, when Individual Voter Registration comes in, people will be able to register digitally, so Bite the Ballot is preparing to extend its activities into this area. The aim is to register half a million people, mainly young but not exclusively so, focussing on National Voter Registration Day, 03/02/14.
Grassroots : This is about bringing politics into the classroom ( with the help of teachers ), the youth club, students’ unions ( with the help of NUS ) etc. Taking the lead from “Rock the Vote” in the USA, much of this work is done through “games” : in an interactive session, we “played” two of these : In “Vote on your Feet” everyone, or, in another version, a selected dozen or so, in response to a statement, makes a line in a spectrum of agreement or disagreement, then volunteers from different parts of the spectrum are invited to try to convince others of their position, and, finally, the people move to other parts of the spectrum or not. In “Show me the Money” , each small group is given a sheet to record what percentage of taxpayers’ money should be spent on the range of public services. These are examples of a technique known as ” Deliberative Democracy”.

Earlier in the meeting there were presentations from Katie Ghose ( ERS Chief Executive ) and Darren Hughes ( ERS Director of Campaigns and Research )  to report on the previous year’s campaigns and plans for 2013/14 : Katie reported on the involvement of an advisory committee,
“a resource to draw on” ( which includes the General Secretary of the Communication Workers’ Union , Billy Hayes , and environmental campaigner Jonathan Porritt ), and cross-party engagement, including meetings with 10 Conservative MPs, Labour for Democracy, UKIP and the Green Party. She described these meetings as “not easy, because we are challenging the power bases of these people.” Darren said that new members had been recruited on the back of campaigns such as : “constantly chipping away at FPTP, towards the central aim of achieving STV for local government in England and Wales ” and “making sure the topic of Lords Reform doesn’t go away”. An important campaign had been “Penny for your Vote”, around the discrepancy on money spent on constituency campaigning –  varying from 14p per vote in Bootle to £3.07 per vote in Luton South, and the strong correlation with voter turnout. On “Rotten Boroughs” or “One-party states”, a Labour councillor in Doncaster ( 80% Labour, nowhere near as “one-party” as Leicester ) had commented, “A one-party authority like Doncaster drains the strength of the governing party”, whereas a Labour voter in Aberdeen ( Labour 17, SNP 15, Others 11 – under STV ) said, “Here, all parties have to campaign for votes, and voters have a real influence on the outcome.”
Following Darren’s contribution, Katie returned to remind us that undermining FPTP, and STV for local government were the priority campaigns in the run-up to the 2015 general election, and that we would also get involved in the debates on  money in politics and the EU democratic deficit. Other issues raised in contributions from the floor included :
–  working on legislation to allow local authorities to determine their own election method ( as in New Zealand ).
– integration of campaigning.
– finance of political parties, particularly the issue of state funding.
– our research on the role of the Boundaries Commission and the still-unequal constituency sizes.

We then had an explanation of the Democracy Max project by ERS Scotland, which, as with Bite the Ballot, used Deliberative Democracy techniques :  from all those who applied to take part, 80 were selected to be as representative as possible of the population demographic : no politicians as such were involved in this process, although politicians were consulted by other means : “Politics is too important to be left to politicians.”  The final report, “A Vision for a Good Scottish Democracy”  is now available to download ( but its 56 pages ! ) .

The first afternoon session was introduced with a presentation by David Denver, Prof. of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, Lancaster University, with some interesting statistics about the Scottish local elections, comparing the present STV era with pre-STV. I have to say that the problem with this was that Prof. Denver, while no doubt an expert in his own academic field, is clearly not an expert on Statistics. For example, one of his results ( not surprising ) was that, under STV, where candidates are arranged in alphabetical order, those whose surnames with initial letter early in the alphabet have a clear advantage over those from their own party whose names are listed later.
He thought that randomisation of lists would make little difference, as those near the top of the list would still have an advantage. I pointed out that, while that was true for each individual contest, if randomisation was taken across the whole electoral unit, discrepancies would even themselves out. His reply showed that he had not understood my question. Then Ken Ritchie had another go at explaining this, pointing out that technology could randomise the randomisation. This time Prof. Denver seemed to grasp the point – I had probably not expressed it as clearly as did Ken.

Another statistic appeared to show that STV had not improved turnout. But it was pointed out to Prof. Denver that he had not been able to separate the STV factor from other factors, particularly the increasing public disillusion with politics. So it may be the case that turnout would have further decreased without STV. What STV clearly has achieved is to very much reduce the number of “one-party states” in Scotland : the great majority of its councils are now governed by an interesting variety of coalitions.

Finally, Tim Knight from Bristol had another chance to present his motions attempting to get ERS to scrap its concentration on STV and even its concentration on electoral reform, by positioning itself as the umbrella organisation for the whole range of democratic reform issues. ( Last year, Tim’s motions came at the end of a hectic session with many motions. As a consequence, he didn’t receive a fair hearing : this was recognised by allowing him to present the motions again, and, this time, there were no other motions to get in his way ). There were several contributions from the floor – including my own in which I again explained that we already have such an umbrella organisation – its called Unlock Democracy . Only one of these contributions was remotely sympathetic with Tim. So it is very likely that the motions were again defeated.
Geoff Gay ,  08.09.13.

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