The debate over what went wrong with the Yes to AV campaign is bubbling along.
Given that the “Noes” had it, by 68% to 32%, the quality of the campaign was but one of the reasons why AV went down. (Tom Clark of The Guardian has provided a good summary of the ten main reasons, even though the ordering and emphasis will be debated for a long time.) Nobody expects to ever see another referendum on AV in this country, but discussions about “what went wrong” are neither irrelevant nor academic. But the dismal failure of the Yes campaign carries a valuable lesson for future political reformers.
Tom Clark’s article is a good place to start. Two points in particular struck a chord with me:
[The] no campaign got down, dirty and deceitful in the best traditions of the party of which it had became a wholly owned subsidiary. Made-up costs were attached to made-up voting machines, and posters proclaimed that these would be paid by soldiers making the ultimate sacrifice. After an infant's need for a maternity unit failed to shift the polls sufficiently, a sick baby in intensive care was deployed instead. The cynical message was that because hospitals matter democracy doesn't, and so you'd better vote no or else the little one gets it.
But sour grapes are no substitute for hard analysis. He goes on:
[The] wet yes campaign, on the other hand, entirely failed to meet fire with fire. The wrong celebrities (Eddie Izzard) were marshalled by worthy functionaries who looked like they would be most at home arguing in favour of a Financial Times editorial about joining the euro . . . In a political culture that rewards those who pitch themselves against the system, for all the semi-comprehensible suggestions that AV would make politicians work harder, the campaign looked like the work of a metropolitan elite. More use should have been made of self-interested yes-mavericks, such as Ukip's Nigel Farrage, to summon up a rabble army.
The Yes campaign seemed to be engaged in a worthy discussion and too often, they were having it with like-minded people. Meanwhile, the No campaign, who saw where their interests lay, were waging total war.
Their contrasting approaches were typified by two broadcasts that played on BBC1. Take a look at this video from the Yes campaign. I can’t see a logical argument that explains how AV could have averted the expenses scandal. (And which MPs are lazy?) Worse, it fails to tell a simple story, that explains how AV would be the solution to voters’ disillusionment with politicians. For all the loud hailers, the video does little to engage in any meaningful with way with viewers’ emotions or concerns about politics. .
Next, check out this No broadcast, which is full of simple (simplistic?) stories. They aim for the heart at least as much as the head. The campaign may have been dishonest, but it played successfully to Conservative and Labour voters’ suspicions and resentment of the coalition and voters’ fear of the supposed complexity of AV. Here’s the rub: they got away with it. They won.
These stories didn’t come out of thin air. In his fascinating account of the campaign, Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome has explained how the “No” team used market research to focus and hone its messages:
Cost, Complexity and Clegg.
It would interesting to see an account from the Yes campaign of how their messages were created.
The strategy and the messaging are not just a concern for political geeks and future PhD students. There was no proportional voting system on the ballot paper, but both the “yes” and “no” campaign carried on as if it was. Both camps wanted to have a big argument about basic views of politics. A more pluralistic politics versus “winner takes all”. “Letting more people have a say” versus “giving my side all the power”. “More representative politics” versus “strong government”. Hope versus fear. Even though it would have meant a modest change in the way we elect MPs, AV became the totem for these bigger political arguments.
The drivers of the AV campaign are going to be with us for a long time. I’m sure it won’t be long till we see the same basic arguments again over another reform issue, with many of the same protagonists on either side.
Let’s try to avoid making the same mistakes again.
Footnote: Just in case you think I am having a case of “after hindsight”, please take a look at this post, from July 2010. Point 4 predicted that the “No” campaign would fight rough. This post, from last October, analysed some research findings on the most effective arguments both for and against AV.