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Entryism – The Sad Case of the Electoral Reform Society

September 7, 2013

Can an organisation that fights for democracy afford itself to be democratic? Those who have witnessed the undermining of the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) could be forgiven for answering that in the negative.

For over 100 years ERS had fought for the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote (STV)  for all public elections, especially for the House of Commons. A very brief history can be viewed here. This was retrieved from the ERS Wales website in September 2011, having been removed earlier from the society’s main website, at the same time as the dissemination of fabricated revisionist histories. Since then this account has been removed from the Welsh site and replaced with a shorter account that makes no reference to STV. In short nothing can be found on the society’s websites to indicate its historic support for STV. For those who want to know the truth, a more complete history [1] was compiled by the society to mark its centenary. Within a year of formation the society had settled on STV as the best system.

On a number of occasions, from 1983 onwards, when the unfairness of first past the post has entered the public consciousness, the adage ‘the best is the enemy of the good’ has been quoted in favour of settling for a compromise. Those for example who argue that any form of proportional representation is better than first past the post, forget that none of the leaderships of the three main parties in parliament care a jot for the interests of 99% of voters. Their loyalty is to themselves and their paymasters. They rely on a compliant media to parrot their lies and distortions; they make Geobbels look like a rank amateur. The only hope is for a parliament in which the majority of members can think for themselves and keep the leadership under control. This will not happen without STV.

Following the publication of the Jenkins report recommending AV+ as an alternative to first-pass-the-post to be put to voters in a referendum, ERS members voted narrowly to campaign for the Jenkins system. However there were accusations then of entryism. It seems that a number of Labour party members had joined the society in an attempt to get something better than first-past-the-post and may have influenced the vote. The then chief executive was accused of orchestrating an attempted takeover, but there was no evidence, and I personally do not believe it, in spite of the fact that I was firmly against the society being associated with the campaign. All this came to naught of course when the Labour Government reneged on its promise to hold a referendum. The union movement was thus to some extent responsible for the difficulties union members now face.

Relationships between Council and the chief executive appear to have remained difficult and the chief executive left under the terms of a confidential agreement. An interim chief executive was appointed, but then in the run up to the campaign for AV, council appointed a chief executive who seems to me to have little knowledge of or enthusiasm for STV. This is not necessarily her fault. Council at that juncture may have wanted a campaigner rather than an expert. It was however open to them to have sent all candidates for the position a briefing on STV, on which they would be tested at interview. She was also, by a process I do not understand, put in charge of the Yes campaign. During the campaign many people with little understanding of STV and who wanted any reform, joined the society without either having to pay a subscription, or to sign up to the objects of the society, as the articles required them to do.

Following the failure of the Yes campaign, many who put themselves forward for election to Council appeared to think the failure was due to the existing council, which was untrue. They wanted a more dynamic society, but what has been the reality? We have not heard a word from council directly. They appear to an outsider to have accepted every suggestion of the chief executive. She has been quoted in the media on a number subjects with nothing to do with voting reform. I don’t pretend to understand her motives, but if they are been simply to raise her personal profile, then she has succeeded. Members’ contributions are spurned. Revealing analyses of election results are ignored. Those who phone Chancel Street are treated at best with indifference.

At two successive AGMs members voted strongly for a campaign for STV for local elections. At the 2012 AGM a special resolution was passed by over 90% of the vote instructing council to campaign for STV. According to the new Articles of Association this should have been binding, but it has been ignored. Yes there has been the rather ineffective ‘Rotten Boroughs’ campaign, (which now appears to have been abandoned), but this was a campaign against first-past-the-post rather than for STV. The bulk of members do not appear to have noticed. Many of the council members who should have been holding the chief executive to account have been re-elected.

The society’s principal source of funding has been the dividends it receives from Electoral Reform Services an independent supplier of ballot and election services. This business, though no longer wholly owned by ERS, was built up by previous generations of passionate supporters of STV. The sadly deluded carpetbaggers benefit from this without even paying a sub. Their predecessors must be spinning in their graves.

It is easy to be wise after the event, but the founders of the society should have drawn up articles of association similar to professional associations, where you have to qualify to graduate from associate to full membership, and full voting rights. As things stand it would be better if the society did not exist. This might stimulate the formation of an effective replacement. The Reform Groups Network, was I think developed as a response to the overcentralised and unresponsive Yes to AV campaign. At present it seems to be mainly a website or rather a family of websites, but it could be more. Within such a framework an organisation devoted to STV could win the argument within the reform community and then with the public. After all STV is widely used within civil society.

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[1] ‘1884 – 1984, The Best System’: An account of the first hundred years compiled by The Electoral Reform Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 6 Chancel Street, Blackfriars, London SE1 0UX, published by The Arthur McDougall Fund, June 1984.

ISBN 0 903278 09 X

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