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AV is …[blank]… The Yes campaign are still missing the answer to “What is AV?”

Matt Wootton studies “cognitive policy” with colleague Rupert Read at the Green Words Workshop. In 2004 he rebranded the Green Party as the party of “Real Progress”. This post is reproduced with his kind permission from the Green Words Workshop.

“What is AV?” is the essential question that the official Yes to Fairer Votes campaign is not yet answering for me, and, it seems, the British public at large.

I don’t mean an explanation of how AV works. I mean the very simplest association in people’s minds of “What is AV?”.
And I don’t even mean just for the 16% of people who have never heard of it [YouGov, 9-10 Mar] or even the 37% of people who have heard of it but aren’t sure how it works.

The problem is that when people – even who know about AV – are asked the question “What is AV?” they can’t give a clear answer. It’s not simple. It’s not easy. At the moment, for almost everybody in the British public, AV is …[blank]…  And for that reason, the Yes campaign will lose.

If – despite their advertising, their TV slots, their phonebanking volunteers, their street stalls, their canvassers and their red batphone to the national media – the official Yes campaign can’t find the simple, honest straightforward truth about what AV is, it will still all be for nought.

Let me illustrate just what a basic level I’m talking about here. The human brain is a marvellous yet routinely predictable organ. It forms associations, and those neural associations form the sum of our skills, our memories, our experience, our language, and, many scientists argue, our personality too. They certainly form the basis of our political and moral beliefs, values and opinions.

Associations are very simple. In language they work like metaphors saying “X is Y” or “this is that”, or “that is this”. This is how we learn language when we are children and it is how we continue to learn things, including political ideas.

The things that people think are most important in life are well established, and they are comfortable with them, from a neural point of view, and they find them simple. For example: love, home, family. You have a reaction to those things because you know what they mean. You don’t have the same reaction as me exactly, because they mean different things to you. You have different neural connections, many different associations in your brain that have been made over the years to those words. A whole network of them. But I imagine a lot of our associations overlap broadly, and that’s why we can have a conversation about those contestable concepts and still understand each other.

However when it comes to AV, or – as we should all be saying – Alternative Vote… Still, nothing. Nothing comes up because we haven’t learned what it means yet. And as I’m about to show, if we have learned what it means, many of those associations might not be so positive.

Yes campaigners have, rationally, tried to compensate for this “AV is  ..[blank].. ” gap with explanations like “AV is “very much like First-Past-the-Post (FPTP). Like FPTP, it is used to elect representatives for single-member constituencies, except that rather than simply marking one solitary ‘X’ on the ballot paper, the voter has the chance to rank the candidates on offer””.

But is that what my original formula looked like? No it is not.

The brain can learn many associations for ‘table’, but only one a time. “X is Y”. Giving someone a long paragraph to introduce them to a two-letter concept seems fine if you believe the human brain works as people from the Enlightenment onwards believed it to, as a rational machine. But brain scientists like Drew Westen in The Political Brain and cognitive scientists such as George Lakoff in Moral Politics have shown the human brain to be far more responsive, emotional and context-bound than that. Westen showed that we think in emotion, even subconsciously. And Lakoff showed that our political opinions come not from our rationality but from our values (there is a tiny sliver of rationality and a huge majority of emotionality).

You think in emotion and you feel in values. Explanations of AV like the one above do not go anywhere near this territory. And as such they miss what human beings are largely about, how we think 98% of the time, and the things that really matter to us and our decision making.

It might surprise some seasoned campaigners that humans are deeply moral creatures too – but just that not everyone has the same morality. We all want to do and be good, although sometimes different people’s ideas of good are opposing.

But in order to win a moral and political argument one must convince someone that your ideas are good; that you are right and that you are good. “AV” was always going to be an uphill struggle from the start because it falls so naturally into a frame of being technical and administrative. Not exactly the issue that gets people up and going to the ballot box. And not exactly one where they have a lot of motivation to even form an opinion about it.

But Yes to Fairer Votes have not yet made sufficient running in my opinion (and the opinion of a growing number of Yes activists) on making the neural connections “AV is simple”, “AV is good”, “AV is right for Britain”, “AV is right for you” and simply “AV is the right thing to do”.

It’s partly in response to this that my colleague Rupert Read and I at the Green Words Workshop launched Yes! Postcards, an ever-developing source of political postcards for a Yes vote, that you can share with and send to your friends. But we’d much prefer simpler more impassioned messages such as these to be coming from the central national campaign.

Rationalist political reservations such as AV not being a perfect step, and having to nod to various different political interests have perhaps got in the way of impassioned convictions. It seems the national campaign is ultra-sensitive to political considerations. But political considerations be damned. If we don’t get some impassioned convictions, right now, then the campaign will be lost. And people will be a lot more politically sensitive about that.

And if the people leading the campaign lose, on our behalf, they don’t deserve to be forgiven easily, mainly because they will have postponed for another generation all hope of electoral reform in our country.

To give evidence for my belief that the campaign is heading for disaster, consider this fascinating post from YouGov pollster Peter Kellner on Open Democracy.

“Just over half the public has still either never heard of AV or is not sure what it means”.

But that’s not even what worries me. Most shockingly for the Yes camp, Kellner detected a pattern in all the polls: when people had been given the quick choice “Shall we change to AV?” a majority voted yes. When primed with a warm-up explanation of how AV actually worked, most voted no.
Compare these two polls in the first week of this month:

Without a warm-up explanation

•    Yes 37%
•    No 32%
•    Don’t know 24%
•    Would not vote 7%

With a warm-up explanation
•    Yes 30%
•    No 47%
•    Don’t know 15%
•    Would not vote 8%

Explaining how AV works completely kiboshed the Yes vote! As Kellner says “When people are told what AV means, and/or are asked to ponder the consequences of AV, the anti-AV lobby gains ground, mainly at the expense of the don’t knows”.

To meet my brain-learning criteria, any explanation of AV needs to be simple, easy, fair and obvious.

Yet the explanation provided to the public before they voted in the second poll was anything but: “The Conservative-Liberal Democrat government are committed to holding a referendum on changing the electoral system from first-past-the-post (FPTP) to the Alternative Vote (AV). At the moment, under first-past-the-post (FPTP), voters select ONE candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins. It has been suggested that this system should be replaced by the Alternative Vote (AV). Voters would RANK a number of candidates from a list. If a candidates wins more than half of the ‘1st’ votes, a winner is declared. If not, the least popular candidates are eliminated from the contest, and their supporters’ subsequent preferences counted and shared accordingly between the remaining candidates. This process continues until an outright winner is declared”.

Rationally, fine, but for the other 98% of the human brain such an explanation is horribly un-easy, boring, obtuse, not obvious and very far from simple.. And it reads as possibly not at all fair.

This is what I mean when I say many of those associations might not be so positive. In fact, it’s a disaster because it takes something that should be filled with political passion for justice and rightness and makes it extremely boring. It takes something that we should be connecting with things people know everything about: justice, rightness, society and their place in it, but instead maps it onto something that people know nothing about (psephology). Peter Kellner doesn’t proffer an explanation, but for my money this “death by political boredom” is what’s happening when 37% Yes versus 32% No turns into 47% No and 30% Yes after they’ve been given the explanation.

Perhaps the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign know this and that is why they have a policy of not themselves offering an explanation of how AV works. As somebody in the Yes office told me, “that’s the BBC’s job”.

But don’t concede defeat… reframe! Without inspiration from some camp or another, even the BBC won’t know how to “frame” the explanation. The question of “What is AV, technically?”, is not a value-less question. Everything needs a frame. And an issue floating about looking to have frames imposed on it is ripe for seizure by the No side, who will waste no time in defining AV as they see it, and even if they use seemingly impartial language their explanation – seen through their frame – will gain currency and popularity. This is what happens to left and liberal groups time and time again. It’s what Lakoff calls falling into “the No-Framing-Necessary Trap”.

It’s not even a question of making it painstakingly accurate, or containing the Yes campaign’s values. The fairly impartial intellectually accurate explanation above is just boring! And boring is worse than you think. Making the neural connection “AV is good” involves associating AV with everything people think is good. That includes their morality, and their morality fundamentally shapes the way they live their life. It’s no exaggeration therefore to say that for the public to accept AV they have to accept it into their hearts, and place it alongside love, home and family, or at least pretty important political convictions like fairness, justice, progress and goodness.

But what does the above explanation do? It associates AV – not rationally but for the 98% of the brain that is doing the real thinking – with technical things that you learnt in school and that you have to remember, or some tedious explanation of something not really important. It puts it in a big mental category – instead of values or goodness or rightness or importance – of “blaaaa, random techie political stuff (with acronyms)”. It’s no coincidence that relatively highly educated liberals detest this category less than say the average Sun reader. But the Sun has a circulation of 3 million. The Guardian sells 360k. From those figures alone you can see which way the British public’s headed.

And when people don’t fully understand something (and it’s much harder to understand a technical paragraph of text than a value which you can feel and believe in) then you don’t have as much confidence in it. Most people will continue to have a not very good understanding of AV, and in the absence of having any positive feelings about the good values of AV they will be very reluctant to vote for it and be responsible for bringing something that complicated and technical upon their fellow countrymen. After all, unless people are really morally convinced of an issue, it’s really better in their minds for them not to divide the country over it.

And on that point there are a couple more bits of bad news from Peter Kellner of YouGov:

“The first is that the status quo tends to gain ground in referendums on issues where countries are divided. This happened in Scotland in 1979, when a large pro-devolution majority melted away in the final fortnight of the campaign; in Spain in 1986, where the public narrowly voted to stay in NATO after all; and in Australia in 1999, when the apparently dominant republicans ended up heavily defeated in a referendum to replace the Queen as head of state. I would not be greatly surprised if something similar happened here with voting reform.

Second, the shift towards the status quo seems to have started already. Recent surveys by YouGov, ComRes and ICM have all detected a shift towards FPTP. In the case of both ICM and ComRes, clear ‘yes’ leads (when the question is asked ‘cold’) have evaporated.”
The fact that people with postal votes will start voting around the 17th of April (and they’ll tell their friends how they voted) makes it all the more likely that public opinions will cement – early – into the maintaining the status quo as the safe option. The longer we go without clear, compelling, emotional intelligent messages based on passionate and universal values, the more the polls are going to show the Yes side as the clear projected losers. We will have turned our lead into a defeat. And the clock is counting in terms of days now.

So, Yes to Fairer Votes do – after all – need their own explanation of how AV works, with the emphasis of making it as simple and bright and optimistic and colloquial as possible and on the Yes campaign’s terms. And resonating with people’s values.

But, they need more than that as well. Just a literal explanation (even an emotionally & cognitively intelligent literal explanation) won’t do. We still don’t have the short-enough answer to the question “What is AV?”. We’re still not at “AV is … “. We need to make more positive associations in people’s minds. And we still need to connect more with people’s values.

However, the No side are there already. They can show us the way to success, since they have already been leading the British people down their merry path for several weeks now.

Rationalist campaigners might think that the No campaign’s messages are things like “AV is complex and unfair” or even “Keep One Person One Vote”, but it’s much worse than that. Those are just the words! The messages that are received – emotionally and subconsciously – are a lot more powerful, insidious and damaging. To my reading the messages the No campaign is sending out are:

AV is ridiculous
AV will take money from you
AV is the liberal elite
AV campaigners are sad misguided people
AV is for posh snobs who think they’re better than you.
AV is a stitch-up, and you’re the one being taken for granted
AV is the Political Class helping themselves
AV is Nick Clegg’s wet dream
AV is a waste of everybody’s time
AV is a joke
AV is robbing you of your rights
AV in undemocratic
AV is Un-British
AV is just bad
AV is immoral because it’s a compromising politician’s fix
AV is wrong

And I think what “Keep One Person One Vote” is really saying is “Other people are going to have more votes than you”, with all the implications of the theft and unfairness of that, and associations of those people as being BNP voters. “Keep One Person One Vote” could even be received as “BNP voters are going to steal your vote”.

If I was advising the No side I would tell them to work all of those underlying messages into the framing of their overt wording. But I’m not telling them anything they don’t already know. Even if they’re not aware explicitly of “cognitive policy”, which is what this is, they’re doing a very good job of getting it right accidentally. But it’s inconceivable that a campaign allied with a professionalised Tory party does not know about cognitive policy: the Right has had a 30-year head start in the area of how the workings of the human brain can be applied to politics. George Lakoff tells us that in the 1990s alone, US Conservatives spent over a billion dollars on think-tank research into cognitive communications. A billion dollars.

So, what would a cognitively-aware answer to the question look like?

Well, our answers card by card on the Yes! Postcards website have been (in order, you can look at the postcards themselves and see how we’ve manifested them):

AV is making sure politicians know who they answer to: us.
AV is giving Britain a government that’s really supported by the people.
AV would have saved us from Thatcher. AV would have kept us safe from values that weren’t really ours.
AV is part of British tradition. AV is healthy popular revolt.
AV is the proud legacy of the Suffragettes. A British legacy.
AV is new. Its opponents are old.
AV is a second choice if your favourite drink isn’t available.
AV is giving you more choices.
AV is voting for who you really want to vote for.

etc etc

Only one of those is technically a metaphor: “AV is a second choice if your favourite drink isn’t available”. But we think metaphors could be hugely important in explaining to people what AV is. Why? Because people think in metaphors! Metaphors are the kind of thing that are likely to make people go “aahhh, I get it!”, rather than the head-scratching alienation they feel from a paragraph of explanatory text. Why? Because the metaphor and experience of wanting a second choice of drink at the bar is one that is part of people’s everyday experience. They recognise it! They’re comfortable with it. It simplifies and illuminates things. In the way they’re not comfortable with AV, technical explanations, or arguments about what will “benefit” them, proffered by politicians.

Here are some other positive associations we should – implicitly – be making:

AV is easy and natural
AV is simple, a child can do it
AV is a vote against the Political Class
AV is the right thing to do.
AV is good for Britain
AV is right for you
AV gives you more.

or maybe:

AV is the choice you’ve been waiting for
AV is your chance to express your anger…
AV is your revenge on the bankers and the politicians
AV is one up for the common man

When the campaign find the right moral message, boiled down, they need to turn it into their slogan. They don’t even have a slogan at the moment. What’s going on with that!?!

A Yes campaigner tells me they’re concentrating on “benefits” to the voter, of what AV can give them. But voters aren’t interested in benefits! Time and time again people vote not with material benefits but with their values. And that’s on matters of real material benefit, like a General Election, not on less important more distant issues like voting arrangements. There’s a whole book about this. It’s called “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”. It’s also one of the absolute bedrock conclusions of Westen and Lakoff: people are not interested in benefits. They’re so disinterested they can happily vote completely against them, all of the time. Instead, moral values are what move and motivate people, and its those with which we must connect.

The conclusion is simple: rationalist language used to explain “information” to people – the mainstay of lobbying organisations, public bodies and NGOs, is no good for political and moral campaigning. It never really has been. But a culture (especially among progressives) that places an (over)emphasis on rationality and a misperception of the workings of the human brain allowed us to think it was.

Let’s take again the quote that began “AV is very much like First-Past-the-Post (FPTP)” (it was in fact from the Electoral Reform Society). Now realise that we’re not in a boardroom Powerpoint presentation but in a moral battle here and draw the parallel: “Good is very much like evil [acronym]…. only a bit better”. The language was fine in its context, but in a moral argument you have already conceded any claim you might have had to the moral high ground.

There are bigger implications in losing this referendum than merely not having AV. A loss will tar any future drives for political change through the ballot box as “like AV”. That is: technical, defeated, unnecessary, elitist, unpopular, misguided, not British. And coming from losers. This will have knock on effects for the ascendence of conservative ideology and the inability of movements for change to achieve broad popular support, whether it be against cuts, against privatisation of the NHS, or for action on climate change.

So, now more than ever we need a radical push to make the Alternative Vote normal, British, and something that people want to have in their lives. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.

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Filed under: Electoral Reform,

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