ERS – The Wrong Kind Of Reform Slate? #yes2stv

This is an honest question, and a request for information.

I’ve been a member of Unlock Democracy for a few years, and took part in the disastrous AV campaign (though thanks to a lot of work by activists in Manchester, we did much better than the national campaign). Straight after that, I joined the Electoral Reform Society.

That may seem a strange, even perverse, decision, but the AV referendum is not the end of electoral reform in the UK. Just look at Scottish devolution – failed referendum in 1979, successful in the late 90s. But it probably *is* the end of AV as an option, and I wanted to campaign vigorously for STV (a better option in any case).

If nothing else, the AV referendum showed that this isn’t just a Lib Dem issue – twice as many people voted Yes as voted Lib Dem. It’s something that can be built on, horrendous as the result was. And I wanted to push harder to get STV.

The ERS is the only organisation that *just* campaigns for STV (though it agreed to take part in the AV referendum as being a massive improvement). Unlock Democracy, for example, is now campaigning to keep Lords reform at the forefront (we’ve got a stall on Saturday the 27th in Manchester, if you want to come and help out), but the ERS is strictly about STV, so I joined.

However, I’m not *at all* happy with the way the AV campaign went – millions of pounds, and tens of thousands of supporters’ hours, were pissed up the wall by the campaign, which was led by the ERS and Unlock Democracy. So I want to see some real reform of the ERS.

The ERS council elections are happening (by STV) at the moment, and a slate of candidates are standing as the reform slate. My initial instinct was to give all of them high preferences. But looking at their manifestos I feel worried.

Almost none of them actually state that they support STV. This shouldn’t be a reason to worry – it could well be assumed – but it still seems odd. Many of them refer to ‘PR’ or ‘fair votes’. On top of that, many of them talk about ‘expanding the ERS’ mission’.

The cumulative impression – especially since so many of the reform slate talk about their experience working for the Fabians or other talking shops – is that the reform they want to see is to change the ERS from an organisation dedicated to STV and broaden it into a more amorphous campaign for, y’know, fluffy good stuff and against bad things, but that they want to keep the essentially talking-shop nature of the organisation. It *looks* like the reform they have in mind is something like the way Blair ‘reformed’ the Labour party – which is the exact opposite of what I want to see.


This is just my gut impression, and is based less on what these people are saying than what they’re not saying – in a very short space for personal manifestos. I’ve not been involved in the organisation long, and of the fifty-three candidates, I’m personally acquainted with two, know one more by reputation, but otherwise have only these manifestos to go on. It could be that the reform slate are passionate, committed activists for STV and everyone else knows this. I’m just getting a hunch, and I never trust those.

If the reform slate want real reform of the type I want – making the ERS into a truly effective grassroots-led campaigning organisation for STV – I’ll gladly give them all high preferences. If what they want is to be another think-tank with unspecified ‘progressive’ aims then I’ll give them the lowest possible preferences. Does anyone actually know which is the case?

(I understand that some people I know may not want to say anything publicly, because they know people standing for the council. If you have anything to confirm or refute my hunch but want it to stay private, please either email me or post a comment under a pseudonym – first-time commenters get held for review, and I’ll not publish anything from a new commenter that doesn’t say “OK to publish” in the body).

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19 Responses to ERS – The Wrong Kind Of Reform Slate? #yes2stv

  1. Like you, I don’t know many of the reform candidates. But out of those I do know, I can safely say that all of them are more interested in making the ERS a more effective campaigning organisation than it is at the moment. Andy May, for example, was involved at the top of the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign and wrote scathingly about how wasteful and ineffective it was. As such I happily voted for the reform candidates plus a few others on the basis that they should boost the effectiveness of the ERS.

    Aside from that, a lot of the reform candidates also have the advantage of being young and should bring a more energetic approach than the mostly elderly composition of those running the ERS at the moment.

  2. MatGB says:

    See, I hadn’t really picked up on that. Still got posts open and the paper copies next to me. I’m giving Thom Oliver my first preference and probably Arnie Craven 2nd–he’s on the ‘reform’ slate, but is definitely committed to STV as a specific.

    It’s possible, of course, that some of them simply don’t feel the need to waste space mentioning STV as it’s a given, ‘fair votes’ is what STV has regularly been called in some campaign circles, ‘PR’ is what the Irish call STV anyway, etc etc etc.

    So it’s hard to know. And it’s a concern that hadn’t occured to me, to be honest.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah… It’s *absolutely* possible – probable even – that I’m being horrifically unfair. It’s just… something seems a little off in some of the wording, and I’m not sure if it’s me having a mild dose of paranoia and reading into it, or if it’s some of them very carefully choosing their words to hide intentions.

      There’s a very, *very* large chance it’s the former, but I thought I’d ask people’s opinions in case there was something better to go on than my incredibly fallible gut instinct.

  3. I was on the Council in the 1970s and 1980s but I left the ERS many years ago because it was taken over largely by people who did not really understand the specific case for STV and who often talked in vague terms about PR as though it did not matter which form of PR was used.
    If you want the ERS to campaign more effectively for STV I strongly urge support for people who know the STV system inside out and all the arguments for it in great detail, and who can personally carry out an STV count and train others to do so. These include, to my certain knowledge, Eric Syddique (probably the world’s leading expert on the nuts and bolts of STV since the death of Enid Lakeman) and James Woodward-Nutt.

  4. plok says:

    My gut instinct is to say you’re right to be concerned. It isn’t a matter of being unfair: that you’ve got ambiguous campaign promises in front of you is not your fault, and it’s hardly impolite to wonder if the promises people don’t make, are not made because they didn’t intend to make them.

    Call those people up and demand straight talk, tell ’em it’s on the record, get the thing clear. Don’t be railroaded, and don’t hold your nose or cross your fingers. You might as well start voting Labour again if you do that.

    Of course, I speak as a total outsider. But it’s never rude not to trust people to keep the word they haven’t given.

  5. Arnie says:

    As a slate member I’ve not come across anyone who opposes STV. After all you’ve go to support STV to be able to join!

    Our problem with the current ERS is two fold: firstly, it’s not really doing that well at securing STV. You can produce as many papers as you want, but until you’re out there running a public facing campaign, you will never get anywhere.

    Secondly: Unlock Democracy is great. I know Vicky Seddon & a lot of the staff & they’re all tremendous. But the ERS is vastly wealthier. That’s why the ERS should broaden its aims. Lords, local authority reform, etc, are all very important too. And we should use some of the ERS’s finance to campaign for that stuff too.

    Consider our position to be STV other things too.

  6. johnault says:


    As you will know from the letter I sent to you and other ERS members in the North West I have supported STV for the past 26 years since I joined the SDP in 1985, and still do.

    I also think that there is a slight clash of cultures here as those who wish to build up the ERS into a more effective campaigning force, like me, come up against those that feel ERS is fit for purpose.

    If the referendum proved anything it showed that the democracy sector was not capable of bridging the gap between those who support electoral reform and the electorate. It was a huge disappointment and we must learnt the lessons. But, we have to take our share of the responsibility. The result in Manchester was better than average but showed that even in areas which were active before the referendum and areas where we built up activity during the campaign we still didn’t win, and we must build our campaign effeciveness from now.

    This process will not be simple and may take many years, but we now have the opportunity to become a larger, stronger and louder organisation to make that change.

    I hope you agree!


  7. Danny Zinkus says:


    I’m Danny Zinkus Sutton. I’m one of the reform minded slate. I was co-convenor of the Edinburgh Yes to Fairer Votes campaign. Please do publish this.

    My contact details are on the candidates statements. I’d welcome any comments or questions from ERS members.

    Personally, I am committed to STV. I think it is the best electoral system. I like the way it balances proportionality with representation by named individuals. I think STV provides the voter with the most power and choice of any electoral system likely to be practicable in the UK.

    I would campaign for an other electoral system, as I did with AV. I think the pace of change has been so slow over the last two hundred years that we should take any improvement on offer as soon as we can. So I would campaign for other proportional systems if such a system were all that was on offer. However, I think the ERS should remain committed to STV as the optimum electoral system and continue to campaign for its adoption in every suitable election.

    To be clear I would vote for the ERS to support a campaign for an electoral system that was not STV if STV were not on offer. I will not vote for the ERS to abandon its long term commitment to STV as the preferred electoral system for adoption for UK elections.

    For me the reform agenda is more to do with methods rather than outcomes.

    My view on reforming the ERS is to make it a more effective activist organisation. Personally, I’d like to see the ERS develop and then execute a 25 year plan for the delivery of STV.

    I do think that the ERS can only deliver STV if it does two things. Firstly, I think it needs a broader, larger activist base than it has recently had. I think it will only attract and retain activists if the ERS takes an interest in things other than promoting STV. The second thing I think I think the ERS has to do to deliver STV is to make electoral reform relevant to the people of the UK. I think electoral reform has to be grounded in the landscape of the broader political and constitutional context of the UK over the next generation. Electoral reform was portrayed as irrelevant to the British public during the AV referendum campaign. Unless the ERS is talking about and working for greater democracy in across a range of issues I think it will struggle to connect STV to the bread and butter issues that the No campaign threw at us during the referendum.

    Like any campaigning organisation the ERS should be working to make itself redundant.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thanks for this (and for saying I can publish this – there are several good comments that are trapped because people didn’t explicitly say they could be published, and I’d said I wouldn’t publish anything that didn’t say that).

      Roughly, from this and the other things I’ve heard, I’ve become convinced that I was half-right and half-wrong. I think the reform slate as a group want more or less the kind of reforms I want in terms of the organisation and its activities, which is good, but I also think that the idea of making STV part of a larger ‘democratic renewal’ campaign risks fatally diluting the organisation’s message.

      For that reason I’ll be giving some of the reform slate high preferences, but will also be giving high preferences to some more established figures, in hopes that we get a mixed council, with enough reformers on it to make the organisational changes needed to make it an effective campaigning organisation, but enough others to stop the organisation losing focus.

      Thanks (both to yourself and to those others who replied but didn’t say I could post their replies) for responding, and for doing so in a friendly manner, rather than taking my post as an attack. I was genuinely trying to find information, and now I have it and can make my decision properly. Thank you.

  8. Arnie says:

    Please feel free to publish my comment, by the way – I didn’t intend it to be private!

  9. Elliot Folan says:

    Personally, I think STV purism is one of the things we need to change about the Electoral Reform Society. It’s one reason I haven’t and won’t join. The other reason is the inherent assumption in most of the ERS platform that British democracy will be revitalised if we only change the voting system. It is a flawed premise.

    I think that Charter 88, which was a broader church for democratic reform, achieved more electoral reform (PR for the Welsh Assembly, London Assembly and Scots Parliament, plus for European elections) in the last twenty years than the ERS ever did with its narrow focus on STV. It also managed to get other reforms – devolution, the Human Rights Act – onto the agenda as well. But that’s just my view, and I’m not an ERS member.

    But as regards the individuals standing, I can vouch for most of them. One – James Grindrod – was my local co-ordinator for the Yes campaign and he felt our frustrations when the ERS did not send out details of our local group to local ERS members.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      See, that’s exactly why I don’t *want* the ERS to change its focus. Charter 88 still exists (as Unlock Democracy) and does fine work, and I don’t see why the ERS should duplicate that rather than have its own, different, focus.

  10. Elliot Folan says:

    Oh, and I forgot to add: okay to publish my comment!

  11. I did mean my message to be published.

  12. johnault says:

    I’m happy for you to post my comment

  13. Elliot Folan says:

    Andrew, I don’t necessarily think the ERS should start talking about a written constitution, I just think they should stop assuming that every person interested in electoral reform is an avowed supporter of STV. Which we’re not. I have to promise I support STV before I can join the society and I’m not going to do that. That is a problem.

    If the ‘Reform Slate’ goes and changes that, that would have my support.

    (Ok to published btw)

    • Elliot
      If you don’t support STV, you are indeed right not to join the ERS. There are other organisations, notably Unlock Democracy, to campaign for constitutional reform more generally. It’s not that anybody “assumes everybody interested in electoral reform is an avowed supporter of STV”, it’s that the ERS exists for the purpose of advocating STV specifically. That has always been its sole raison d’etre. STV is quite different from other kinds of PR (such as list systems or AMS) and, in the eyes of its supporters, infinitely superior to them. There needs to be a campaign explicitly for that system.
      (OK to publish)

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