Monday, 4 April 2011

The AV campaign and racism

Several media sources are reporting on the "Yes To Fairer Votes" campaign publicity, where different campaign leaflets were sent to different parts of the country. Each leaflet included six celebrity endorsements of the campaign. New Statesman has scans of both leaflets.

In London, the campaign endorsements were (left to right, top to bottom) from Joanna Lumley, Eddie Izzard, Colin Firth, Honor Blackman, Stephen Fry, and Benjamin Zephaniah. (Three white men, two white women, and one black man)

Outside London, Benjamin Zephaniah is absent, and Tony Robinson is included in fifth (with Fry moved to sixth). (Four white men and two white women)

Not surprisingly this got picked up on quite quickly.

So, YTFV's response to the accusations of racism, when asked why they swapped Zephaniah for Robinson outside London (or perhaps Robinson for Zephaniah in London, depending on which leaflet design came first):

We have a number of endorsers and we vary the endorsers we use on our leaflets.

If they'd had an entirely (or mostly) different set of endorsers on the two posters, or if they'd had numerous different selections from those seven sent to different regions, or different households within regions, then this would make some sense.

Additionally - and this statement is quoted slightly differently by the Guardian and the Telegraph - they say:

If the No campaign want to accuse us of racism on the day that Kriss Akabusi launches our campaign, that is up to them. Who are Operation Black Vote and the Muslim Council of Britain backing? The Yes campaign.


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.

Which is, of course, a textbook "I can't be racist, I have black friends" argument. Actually, it's perhaps more an "I can't be racist, my favourite voting system has black friends" argumentm which is even more nonsensical.

We're all perfectly aware that the proposed Alternative Vote is not an inherently racist voting system. Putting numbers rather than a cross on your ballot paper will not reinforce white privilege. OBV and the MCB are presumably supporting AV because they believe it to be a better voting system, not because they believe the members of the Yes campaign to personally be less racist than the members of the No campaign.

It's an extremely bad response, which suggests that they don't have a better honest response, and one of two things happened:

  • As suggested by the No campaign: Zephaniah was removed in favour of Robinson for leaflets outside London, to avoid having black people on a leaflet going to the mostly-white counties.
  • Alternatively, and marginally better: the counties leaflets were printed and sent first, but Robinson was removed in favour of Zephaniah after someone looking at the London leaflets pointed out that having all the endorsers be white was hardly representative of the UK.
    (There are a few other variations on this possibility that give YTFV even less benefit of the doubt on their ability to acknowledge white-as-default thinking)

I think the second case is marginally more likely, since other non-London areas with a high BAME population have also received the all-white version. On the other hand, their apparent lack of understanding of what the problem is in their responses means that I'd be utterly unsurprised by the first alternative being true. Either way, they have an unacknowledged problem.

The alternative theory does add an interesting point about media coverage of racism, too.

Thought experiment: Let's say the alternative theory is correct - the original leaflet was the Robinson version. What would have happened had they sent this leaflet out to everyone, and never made a Zephaniah version?

Most likely, there would have been no mainstream accusations of racism whatsoever. Anyone suggesting that it was a bit unusual that the Yes leaflets had an all-white cast of endorsers would have been very quickly called oversensitive or over-reacting.

In that situation, by taking (too late) action to correct the effects of white-as-default in the original design, they actually made things worse for themselves1 in terms of press attention.

1 And yes, swapping out another couple of endorsers at the same time would have effectively stopped that. No-one ever accused YTFV of being competent.


It's extremely fortunate that, unlike a Parliamentary election, the merits of the options cannot be deduced from the quality of their campaigners. One can vote 'Yes' or 'No' without that being a reflection on the quality (or lack of quality) of the respective official campaigns, and there is basically nothing that either campaign could ever do right or wrong to change my vote.

I'd thoroughly recommend that anyone else thinking about their vote starts by assuming that both campaigns are - intentionally or otherwise - talking rubbish, and investigates the relative merits of AV and FPTP for themselves.