Britain has for many years had a first past the post electoral system. It results in absolute rule by a small majority, and many people don't like this. Due to this system, no vote that I cast in the UK ever counted for anything, as no-one who I ever voted for got any power at all.
Many people would like to see this system replaced by a system of proportional representation which results in the views of the country being proportionately represented in parliament. This has been discussed for many years in the UK, and many people want such a system. No-one's votes would be "wasted" simply because they live in an area where they are outnumbered by people with a different view. The Netherlands has a proportional representation system, as do many other countries, and while there is much whining in Britain that this would create problems, it seems to work just fine here.
Anyway, how does this relate to cycling, and how to campaign on cycling ? Well, the recently lost vote in Britain was not on switching to a truly proportional system, but instead about a switch to using Alternative Vote. This actually is only a very minor tweak to what the country already had, and keeps the problem of the winner-takes-all aspects of FPTP. Frankly, it makes no real difference to the injustice of the voting system in the UK, but merely makes voting more complicated.
The end result of campaigning for something which no-one really wanted and few were enthusiastic about is that nothing has changed. Britain is keeping the old system. According to some, the chance of a lifetime has been lost.
However, frankly, I've rarely seen a campaign less likely to succeed than this one. What a large number of people in the UK wanted was real electoral reform, giving proportionality. There was never, and could never, be huge demand for a very small change to the existing system. The public were left wondering why they should be interested in a mere procedural change. Why bother ?
An "achievable first step" ?
People in the "Yes" group openly talked about this as "an achievable first step" towards PR, even though it's not a step at all. There is no natural progression from AV to PR. No reason for AV to exist before PR is possible.
Reform campaigners had been fooled by the opposition into making a compromise before their campaign got started. As a result, they were asking people to vote for something they never wanted in order to perhaps get to vote again later for something they did want. Naturally, there was little support for voting for something that few people ever wanted in the first place, so the campaign was always doomed to fail.
This has echoes in cycle campaigning. Self-styled "realists" amongst cycle campaigners ask not for what is actually needed and possible, but for what they think is "achievable given current standards". This also will fail to achieve mass support, and fail to achieve even the minor changes that they work towards because they will inevitably be forced to compromise again before implementation. Even the best possible result of such a style of campaigning is that a poor standard of cycle infrastructure results.
Why are both these groups so timid ? Why are they diluting their own message, and therefore losing supporters before they've even had a chance to build a movement ?
Applying the same thinking to recent successful campaigns
Let's consider what other campaigns in recent history would have achieved if they'd taken the same approach:
- Mahatma Gandhi achieved something by actually making a stand. He did not ask for slightly lower taxes on salt, he made salt himself without paying tax. Despite the obvious risks involved, this attracted a mass following.
- Nelson Mandela, with the ANC's Defiance Campaign demanded "conditions which will restore human dignity, equality and freedom to every South African." They did not ask for a slight improvement in conditions, but true equality.
- Martin Luther King said "we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." (read the whole speech. It's powerful stuff).
- The incident with Rosa Parks on the bus didn't end merely with the section sign on the bus being in a fixed position so that she wouldn't have to move in the future, but with the end of segregation on the bus and a good start on ending it in other places as well.
- Harvey Milk didn't ask just ask for gay people not to be beaten up on Tuesdays.
|These children in Assen have a right|
to safety which is enforced by
sympathetic infrastructure design.
Why talk about civil rights and equality campaigners in the context of cycling ? Well, what else are we asking for but the equal right of cyclists to go about their lives in peace and safety without harassment and danger ? Campaigners must be bold. They must ask for the best possible result they can imagine, not an easy compromise. Compromises might be inevitable along the way, but no successful negotiation starts by asking for less than you really want and nothing good will come of celebrating a bad compromise as if it's the best possible outcome.
The Dutch campaign about child safety was the right approach. It was a big, bold issue behind which everyone could be allied, whether or not they were interested in cycling or "cyclists". This resulted in a reduction in the annual number of child deaths on the roads to a twentieth of the previous figure. That success helped to pave the way for the infrastructure which everyone in The Netherlands benefits from now.