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Lessons from Charter 88

Comments from:
Stuart Weir of the Democratic Audit
Peter Facey of New Politics Network and Charter 88

Saturday’s Independent published on its front page a huge list of the four thousand people who had sent in their names to support its Campaign for Democracy. The bottom right hand corner was turned up, in homage, intended or not, to Charter 88. I remember how Keith Ablitt, the exceptional typographer and designer who created the original Charter and the many adverts that followed, carefully explaining his concept of the upturned corner and its impact on potential signatures.

Few forms of flattery are more sincere than imitation. But the imitation I look for most of all is support in depth. The problem with all ‘campaigns’ which focus on a single issue like voting reform is that the strength of their simplicity becomes a weakness. The government thinks it can just sit it out. Once initial support has peaked, where does it go? Once it starts to falter, it appears to lose momentum and soon becomes yesterday’s news.

What are the conditions for a campaign to become a success? One option is money: lots and lots of it, hiring PR merchants and advertising agents, shaping opinion as columnists are dined and unusual outlets, especially in broadcasting, targetted. The Indepdent does not have this kind of money and anyway it has branded the campaign as its own. The alternative to money is ideas. There has to be an internal richness if there is external scarcity. The campaign must not become boring.

Another, brilliant campaign also taking place now, which has gained a high profile in Britain is Make Poverty History. This has a rich hinterland of potential argument to keep it going, from trade to sustainable development.

The constitutional agenda as a whole also has this potential. So indeed does “democracy”. It is about identify and nationality, about globalisation and locality, law, myth, culture and, in the United Kingdom, a new ‘settlement’ as well as the delivery of a fair voting system. Will the Indie grasp this and embrace the larger arguments, or will it make the mistake of thinking that because the outrageous election outcome was the original “story” it must stick to this and this alone?

May 23, 2005 in Blair's Bust - UK election | Permalink


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Tracked on 8 Jun 2005 13:22:55


Anthony, you are quite right. From the outset, the Independent did indeed allude to broader issues, but that seems to have been lost in the past couple of weeks. It remains to be seen what happens after their initial call for petition signatures begins to tail off. Charter88, New Politics Network and our partners in Make Votes Count are committed to working with the independent to help deliever electoral reform.

But a broader based campaign is needed, and that is precisely what Charter88, with the New Politics Network, are committed to building. We have short term goals - Lords Reform and the Royal Prerogative are relatively low hanging fruit that we have been building support over. But we have our eye on the bigger picture.

In the longer term, two events will determine the success of the democratic reform movement. The first is whether Charter88 and New Politics can build a strong movement for more democracy with both an active grassroots and clear leadership from the centre. The second is whether the POWER Inquiry can deliver on its promise to set out the challenges we face and the possible solutions we might adopt.

The crucial thing to remember is that the issue is not PR systems or types of second chamber, but how to form a new democratic settlement which hands power back to the people. It is this we are committed to helping deliver.

Peter Facey
Director, New Politics Network
Co-Director, Charter88

Posted by: Peter Facey, Director New Politics Network & Co-Director Charter88 | 24 May 2005 12:40:00

Hi anthony-

It is wonderful, as you say, to see a national newspaper take the whole issue of electoral reform seriously. (The last newspaper to do so was, incidentally, the Sun in the 1970s when Harold Wilson's Labour government was returned to power with a majority much narrower than Blair's on a larger share of the vote.)

I think that the Indie will require allies if this campaign is to be sustained. It needs simultaneously to be broadened and made more specific. The absurdly biased and unrepresentative election result is the worst and most obvious failing of this first-past-the-post election, but there are other major faults that it encourages.

Three examples - first, the parties have to tailor their messages to the electorate in terms that do not leave them vulnerable at the level of key constituencies with markedly different populations and political persuasions. The Liberal Democrats suffered this time round because their main message was well received in Labour marginals but not where they were up against the Conservatives. So next time they are likely to trim their message to try and keep both sets of constituencies happy.

Second, FPTP encourages the bitter partisan politics that are characteristic of the Westminster Parliament - and also the dreadful manipulative electoral 'dirty tricks' that most parties adopt (some better than others).

Third, the overweening power that FPTP puts in the hands of relatively mediocre politicians leads directly to 'policy disasters' - the Iraq war, the poll tax, rail privatisation, and much more. The recent Conservative claim that it gives the people stable and effective government in hogwash - the exact opposite is the case.

More specific? The demand for 'electoral reform' is designed to maintain a broad alliance of campaigners for change without making the choices between different systems that would fragment the alliance. This means that politicians, notably in Labour's ranks, can exploit the looseness of the demand to promote a damaging alternative to FPTP that would benefit their party and produce even more disproportionate election results. This is the Alternative Vote, which Peter Hain, Martin Linton and others are busily advocating. (It is also Peter Mandelson's favoured option.)

At the Democratic Audit ( modelled AV in our study of alternative electoral systems in 1997 ( We found that it would have produced a markedly more unrepresentative Parliament than even FPTP. AV elections to the lower house in Australia are also consistently disproportionate. AV might be acceptable for elections to the Commons if the Upper House was elected through a PR system and had real powers under a written constitution (as in Australia). But not otherwise.

So the Indie needs to grasp the detail at some point. Otherwise its admirable campaign will be too blunt to do good and could do harm. There are allies out there which are neither politically partisan (in terms of party) nor committed to one option at the expense of others. But as you say, I think it would be difficult for the Independent formally to ally itself to any of them. So everyone who wants reform must rally to its campaign and do their best to broaden and sharpen it.

Posted by: Stuart Weir | 24 May 2005 18:56:33

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