Can differential turnout overcome the polls and deliver a 'Yes'?

By Anthony Barnett
May 5, 2011

There was a tremendously good ‘Yes to Fairer Votes’ rally last night. We sat in the raked theatre of the Royal Institution where the great 19th century experiments were tested that opened the way to the modern era. Will we be so lucky with the British voting system?

Cool chairing from Katie Ghose gave us Richard Wilson (who only needs to open his mouth to make everyone laugh) and Jonathan Bartley, who I know as a shrewd co-director of Ekklesia.

Then John O’Farrell and Amisha Ghadiali came on, and Amisha made the obvious point that we have more choice in almost all aspects of our lives except the voting system. We then had Billy Bragg, Stephen Fry and Tony Robinson looming over us from the wall-sized screens like gentle big brothers.

Armando Iannucci followed and gave perhaps the best speech I’ve heard on the subject, responding to Cameron’s claims that First-Past-the-Post is simple, fair and decisive. Armando insisted that it should be a referendum about FTTP not AV and as for being simple, setting down your preferences is just more sophisticated, as in “cave simple, house sophisticated”.

We then had two campaigners, Becky Harvey and Charlie Simmonds, a woman and a worker, before – to general surprise – Ed Miliband was given a roaming mike to stalk the pit of the theatre and demand a change of political culture. He was much better than on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, where he failed to make the obvious point. Yesterday, David Cameron told John Humphries he objected to elections where the person who comes first in the initial round then loses. But if that principle had been applied to Cameron himself, he’d not have won the leadership of the Conservative Party!

Miliband was followed by a tri-party line up (no Green). The Tory was Andrew Boff from the London Assembly followed by Paddy Ashdown being clear and commanding and Alan Johnson calmly addressing his Labour ‘No’ colleagues.

There was then a brilliant routine from Kriss Akabusi who introduced Eddie Izzard, who was one hyper-campaigner.

The feel of the event was special. It was bright, had energy, took the fight to the enemy, covered the waterfront, had a sense of focus and determination and raised the spirits. Yes, it was a rally of mainly campaign workers, but it was intelligent, not mindless and had a winning spirit. I’m not sure I’d say the same for the expensive back of the Guardian advert with its appeal from a long list of mainly little known politicians. But, hey, you can’t win them all. I for one hope the opinion polls are overturned by differential turnout.


(c) Anthony Barnett is the founder of openDemocracy ( and the co-editor of its UK section, Our Kingdom (

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