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Black & white political language?

April 3, 2011
AV cartoon

A rather grubby little row has blown up in British politics.  The issue of racism has raised its ugly head in the campaign for the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum.  It would appear that the ‘Yes to AV’ campaign have distributed leaflets in London which include a photo of poet Benjamin Zephaniah, but have used an image of actor and writer Tony Robinson in his place in some of the more rural areas of England.

The ‘NO to AV’ campaign are calling this change racism and their spokesman had this to say:

“Why are Yes to AV ashamed to have the support of Benjamin Zephaniah in places like Cornwall and Hampshire?  The Yes campaign’s leaflet offers a chilling preview of politics under the alternative vote.  We have warned that AV would encourage parties to pander to extremist opinions in a chase for second and third preference votes, but we never imagined the first example of such outdated views would come from the Yes campaign itself.”

The ‘Yes to AV’ campaign have denied that race is an issue in the leaflet distribution.  They explain the change by saying that they have a number of celebrity endorsements to accommodate on the leaflets.  Their spokesman said:

“These allegations mark a new low for the ‘No’ campaign and their increasingly desperate smears.  Let’s put it this way: Operation Black Vote, the Muslim Council of Britain and a host of similar groups are backing the ‘Yes’ campaign. The BNP are backing the ‘No’ campaign. People can draw their own conclusions.”

As a bit of background, AV is a proposed system of voting to replace First Past the Post (FPTP), the current system in the UK.  There’s a pretty good explanation of AV on Wikipedia.  In a nutshell, rather than voting for one preferred candidate in an election, voters rank the choices in order of preference.  If one candidate doesn’t achieve a majority (over 50%) on the first count then the bottom-ranked candidate is removed and the second choices of their voters are put into a new count.  This continues until one of the candidates achieves a majority and is elected.

The ‘NO to AV’ campaign claim that one of the reasons AV is a bad system is that it will encourage politicians to appeal to followers of extremist and fringe groups in order to gain second choice on their ballot papers.  The ‘Yes to AV’ campaign state that this isn’t the case and that extremist groups will find it much harder to get elected than under FPTP.

Back to the row then.  ‘Yes to AV’ certainly appear to have used different celebrity endorsements in different regions.  This is a rather unedifying spectacle, whether it’s a matter of race or not.  Presumably they believe that people in, say, Hampshire will not recognise or identify with Benjamin Zephaniah as readily as people in London.  The clear implication here is that Londoners read cutting edge poetry and yokels watch Time Team.  It is also possible that the ‘Yes to AV’ bods really do believe that people in the country don’t like black people, but I really hope that wasn’t a factor.

Meanwhile the ‘NO to AV’ people have jumped in with both feet to try to make some sort of point about politicians pandering to extreme opinions to get votes.  Since the referendum will be a straight Yes or No vote it will be conducted under FPTP, so why would there need to be any currying of favour with extremists to obtain second votes?  It’s a failure of logic and a fairly obvious case of mud-slinging.  Are they really trying to tell us that Nick Clegg, Stephen Fry and Joanna Lumley are racists?  Really?

This whole episode brings nothing but shame to both sides.  The Yes campaign have clearly taken the targeting of their message to an extreme that simply leaves them open to ridicule.  The No campaign have leapt on it and tried to turn it into something it’s not in a cynical attempt to smear their opponents.  Frankly, these are two of the activities in politics that annoy me the most.  Politicians have to get out of their little bubbles, start working for the people of this country rather than for each other and recognise that people can and will follow the facts of a debate and decide an issue on its merits (as an aside on that subject: just because the BNP support something it doesn’t automatically make it something to oppose.  The BNP are an offensive little gang of bigots in the main, but let’s stick to the facts in political debate thanks).

For the record I lean a bit more towards AV as a voting system but I’m still looking at the information.  I urge you all to do the same and, whatever you do, please vote in the referendum.  A lot of good people have made huge sacrifices so that you can.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2011 20:29

    Rural England racist?
    Where no one raises an eyebrow if you ‘black up’ on a 70s disco night in the village hall?
    Where the locals suggest a sikh family considering a move to the country might like to live “a little closer to their temple” instead?
    Where crime is usually laid at the feet of those ‘blacks and immigrants from town’?
    And thats just one village I know intimately near a certain North Wilts air station…

    But absolutely agreed!

    • April 3, 2011 20:34

      No question these attitudes exist PJ, but they’ll continue to exist as long as politicians pander to them in the name of political expediency and ‘targeting’ their message. Thanks for your comment, you always add something useful 🙂

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