I recall being at a party organised by one of the main spokespeople for the Yes to AV campaign a couple of months after the referendum had taken place. One guy who was a friend of the host told me that in the end, he’d voted No. The reason he gave was this:
“I’d like to see a change in this country. But not change as big as you guys wanted. Not a revolutionary thing like you guys were campaigning for.”
The reason this moment sticks in my head is simple: it contains within it not only all the reasons the Yes side were crushed in that particular referendum, but just how hard it is to affect genuine political change in Britain. Because it would be hard to think of a smaller, less incremental change than moving from a First Past the Post voting system to AV. Calling it a minor wrinkle in the system would be extremely flattering to the Alternative Vote; even the Electoral Reform Society, who were a major player in the Yes campaign, had to admit after the 2015 election that it would have affected around 10 seats at the very most.
So if that’s the kind of thing that freaks people out enough to run to the polls to vote against it, Jeremy Corbyn should think long and hard about some of his more radical ideas. The very notion that the same people who a little over four years ago were terrified of having to put numbers on a ballot paper instead of an X are going to now be open minded on whether Britain maintains a nuclear deterrent or not, has a more open door immigration policy, or will allow nationalisation by theft to take place in their names is pretty far-fetched, in my opinion.
They want to change things, the Cobynistas. You know what, I don’t agree with the changes they want to make, but I’m a democrat so let them go for it. I just think that they may make the major mistake most left-wing movements make: they want to change too much, too fast, instead of focusing on the few things that they could feasibly do without freaking people out. Re-nationalisation of the railways, as a for instance: that is completely doable. Most people are broadly in favour so long as it is affordable. That would be a major change. While I really don’t agree with this one, removal of all private sector involvement in the NHS: again, probably has enough popular support to happen, with some willpower.
But the positions on Trident, NATO (although that’s softening already), printing money and telling the Bank of England that if they don’t like they will come under tight Westminster control – these things are real vote losers, guys. If you don’t believe me, then fine. Just remember there are changes that have a real chance of happening that you’d like to see happen that will not happen in your lifetime simply because you wanted the whole menu at the same time.