This is a lengthy and cathartic postmortem of the AV Referendum campaign. Parts of it (especially the bits about how the Yes campaign could have won) are based on the insights of staff and fellow volunteers in our marvellous Birmingham group. If you don’t fancy reading all 3000 words of this, a couple of pithy quotes sum up nicely my attitudes to both campaigns:
First, the Yes campaign:
“It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain” – Geoffrey Howe in his resignation speech.
Next, the No campaign:
“There’s a bright future for all you professional liars” – Elvis Costello, How to be Dumb.
Now, on with the catharsis:
A crushing defeat of 69% to 31% demands a lengthy post-mortem. It’s an absolute thumping, and surely puts electoral reform off the agenda for a generation at least.
A defeat like this has prompted a variety of reactions amongst Yes campaign activists. First, that this must mean the British people are stupid. Second, that it proves that our opponents had too much money, power and influence that there was nothing we could do. The Yes campaign was “doomed from the start” because powerful forces in the media and politics were opposed to a Yes vote. This seems to be the view of this chap/chappess:
Last night a senior source in the campaign for the alternative vote admitted they knew “very early on” that there was no chance of winning the referendum and that Clegg had become part of the problem: “Every time Clegg spoke about AV our polling numbers went into free-fall. We knew from very early on, before the new year, that we couldn’t win, our message wasn’t getting through and the Liberal Democrats in the whole were worse than useless. Clegg was toxic and everything [Chris] Huhne did in criticising the Tories just put the attention on the political spat – made it a Clegg versus Cameron affair. Utterly unwinnable.
To understand why this view is misguided, let’s have a look at the polling data and at the actual votes cast for Yes.
You can see a history of polling data for the AV Referendum here. Around the turn of the year, Yes were continually on early 40s/late 30s, and often enjoyed a narrow lead over No. Yes lost support slowly over April, then rapidly over the last couple of weeks of the campaign. For the last ten days or so of the campaign, the figures were something like Yes 32%, No 68% in most polls, which is remarkably similar to the referendum results.
The trend, then, is the No campaign winning over the Don’t Knows, and Yes losing support. Part of this can be attributed to the hardening of the Tory vote once Cameron started campaigning, but not all of it. What the overall polling suggests, from way back in 2010, is that the Yes campaign had a base of around 30% of voters, but failed to convince any Don’t Knows whatsoever. Indeed, the total Yes vote was lower than the total Lib Dem vote in May 2010.
That’s a remarkable figure, and one that cannot simply be explained by Nick Clegg, or the EVUL NO CAMPAIGN!?, as some would have us believe.
Let’s put things straight first. This referendum was winnable. It goes without saying that the Yes campaign was dealt a difficult hand. People wanted to kick Nick Clegg. The pro-reform vote was split three ways. Elderly voters and Tory voters were likely to vote No, and more likely to vote than Yes voters (often the younger voters). These factors could explain a small Yes defeat, but not one on this scale.
To say that a No vote was inevitable is wrong for a few reasons, and I want to try and outline why below. First I shall explain the main reason why a No vote happened. It’s because the Yes campaign was shockingly appalling:
1) The Yes campaign was run by people who had never run a national election campaign.
It was led by two kinds of people. The first was the Electoral Reform Society/Take Back Parliament people, who were members of a pressure group and had never run a political national campaign of any sort. The other kind of people were Liberal Democrats. As a rule, Lib Dems don’t run national campaigns: they run a series of targeted, local campaigns and do not operate anything on this scale.
The mass incompetency of the Yes campaign ran through it like a stick of rock. For instance:
2) Its central message was very poor.
The Yes campaign’s main message was “Make your MP work harder”. To which MPs could, and did, plausibly claim that they worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. The yes campaign were trying to get the anti-politics vote, but they weren’t turned on by this message. I spent a lot of time giving out the “Make Your MP Work Harder” leaflets in town. I had many replies to the effect that “We don’t want MPs to work harder, we want them shot”. One said “they should work harder making their own gallows”. Our main message, then, was rubbish. It fell between two stools, and didn’t capture either the anti-politics vote, or the pro-politics vote.
The Yes campaign’s other message – about axing jobs for life and ending safe seats – also didn’t work because AV doesn’t help end these problems.
In contrast, not enough time was spent explaining why our current electoral system was not fit for purpose. The two main unquestionable benefits that AV would have brought are that it eradicates the huge amount of tactical voting under FPTP, and MPs would need a majority of support from their constituents. These are the main messages that worked when talking to voters in the street or on the doorstep, and yet were almost totally ignored by the Yes campaign. The only mention of the latter was a slogan on some Yes leaflets called “Make it 50″ which was so awful and obscure it took our office and local activists a couple of minutes to work out what central office were going on about.
As one of our activists commented on Facebook, when I mentioned I was writing a postmortem blog:
The more I think about it, the more the disconnect between the message we found actually worked on the ground and what the national campaign concentrated on, drives me nuts.
This lack of a decent message was a symptom of the fact that our campaign was not led by political campaigners.
3) Too many rubbish gimmicks
See this source from the Yes campaign, quoted in the Guardian:
We even brought in an advertising man to save us. He came up with the idea of constructing a giant pin-striped bottom to take around the country for people to throw things at as a way of illustrating that AV makes MPs work harder. It was desperate stuff.
I’m assuming this is the same person who posted toilet seats, pond cleaner and rubber ducks to us in the Birmingham group (for a street stall linking AV to the expenses scandal) and inflatable axes (“axe jobs for life”). Part of me wants to dedicate the rest of my career in politics to ensuring that people like this advertising man, and a fair few of those high up in the Yes campaign, never work in politics again. Thankfully for them (and me) I’ve got better things to do.
4) Very little was made of our main strength – the breadth of cross-party support
Nigel Farage was our secret weapon, and yet was hardly ever used by the Yes campaign. He’s a good communicator, would have appealed to older voters (Yes’s weakest demographic) and would have been a great answer to the people who said “This should be a referendum on leaving the EU”. But he wasn’t, because the Yes campaign was run by incompetents. It was trying to be a lefty-love in, forgetting that we needed to appeal to all sections of political opinion, and that we couldn’t rely on the support of all left-wing voters.
5) Squandering what money it had
The Yes campaign had less money than the No campaign. Although published figures put the funding for both parties at about the same, that ignores the large amounts of money put into the No camp from Tory central office. However, the Yes campaign still had lots of money – millions of pounds. Therefore a lack of money was not the issue. The problem was that it misspent lots of money.
It spent too much on phonebank co-ordinators, when no political party now uses phonebanking as a way to engage with voters. The Electoral Commission would have paid for the postage of one targeted mailshot to every person on the electoral roll. The No campaign took advantage of this, we didn’t. There was only one mailshot, sent out to a few targeted voters, and even that was a bit rubbish. It was full of celebrity endorsements, didn’t explain why our system was broken and how AV would change that. What’s more, it managed to cause a race row, as well as as demonstration of how not to run your official twitter account.
The truth was that Zephaniah was added, not omitted, to the Yes leaflets after one member of staff commented that it’d be odd if a leaflet featuring no BME faces was delivered to houses in London. However, they were added to leaflets in London, but not to those letters sent to residents in Birmingham (including myself) which is also very ethnically diverse, and also Zephaniah’s home city! It was a bad leaflet, badly targeted, with an awful reaction to the media furore that surrounded it. Utter, utter incompetence.
The simple fact is that some people voted No because they received a No leaflet and not a Yes leaflet. When there was a chance to send out a targeted mailshot to every house in Britain, with the postage paid for. This was an epic clusterfuck of a campaign which will go down in the annals of political incompetence.
I don’t think Katie Ghose gets that though. In her speech she said the public had been “shut out” of the debate on AV. What nonsense. If anything, they were shut out by her campaign refusing to print proper mailshots, and by the last fortnight of the campaign taken up with Chris Huhne calling the No campaign Nazis.
If you really want to hear more about the naffness of the Yes campaign, please read this very entertaining piece on Socialist Unity.
So, how could the Yes campaign have won?
If I, and a few of the people in the Birmingham office, had run the campaign, this is what we’d have done differently:
a) Changed the name
“Yes to AV” is far catchier and to the point than “Yes to Fairer Votes”. “Fairer” is reminiscent of new-politics-coalition-newspeak-fluffy-bullshit.
b) Got a professional politician to run the campaign
Perhaps someone like Paddy Ashdown or Jack Straw. Someone who has plenty of experience of running lots of national campaigns.
c) Spent more time lobbying Labour MPs to vote Yes
This from Tim Montgomerie is an absolute must-read. It’s clear that the No campaign spent a lot of time lobbying Labour MPs:
The hard slog of ‘winning the Labour party’ first so that Labour voters could be won later was carried out by former Labour MPs Jane Kennedy (who took on Militant in the 1980s) and Joan Ryan. For weeks on end they almost lived in the atrium of Portcullis House – the place in the parliamentary estate where MPs, journalists and researchers mingle. The campaign that resulted in a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party opposing AV was won over cappuccino and chocolate muffins. The campaign was also fought in the country. “Whilst Joan Ryan was setting up Labour No to AV and building the national campaign as the deputy campaign director – particularly working out the core vote/swing vote strategy – Jane Kennedy spoke at about two hundred meetings of constituency Labour parties.
It was obvious that Labour voters were going to be the swing voters. Why didn’t Yes do the same and lobby Labour MPs? If Labour “big beasts” such as Jack Straw, Ed Miliband, Ben Bradshaw etc etc had lobbied MPs more to vote Yes, especially the No2AV Yes2PR ones, perhaps the result would have been very different.
This is what I mean when I say that a defeat for Yes was not inevitable. People point to the split of the Labour party on the issue as a reason why a No vote was inevitable. What it actually shows is how effective the No vote were at lobbying Labour, which is something Yes should have been doing as well.
d) Ditch the anti-politics message
It was rubbish and didn’t work.
e) Use Nigel Farage more and take advantage of a mailshot with post paid for.
As I’ve said above.
f) Try and turn it into a referendum on David Cameron
It’s clear that Nick Clegg was a complete liability for the Yes campaign. I don’t have the exact statistics to hand, but I reckon that every time he spoke, Yes lost 5000 votes. What we had to do was turn the referendum on Cameron instead. To quote Eddie Izzard, “If No wins than Clegg gets a bloody nose, if Yes win than David Cameron gets a bloody head”. Tory blogs were making it quite clear what dire consequences Cameron would face if there was a Yes vote. Would Labour voters have needed much persuading to inflict these dire consequences on him?
Instead, our campaign said nothing. Because, you’ve guessed it, it was incompetent. Only Labour Yes did so, and we could easily have tailored adverts like these for “ordinary” voters as well.
g) Focus on bread-and-butter issues
We all know that the No campaign adverts were despicable. However, the creator of the “dead-baby” advert, Dan Hodges, is more right than wrong here in this post. He also argues that the Yes campaign lost this referendum rather than the No campaign winning it. This is his logic for the baby advert:
When I helped created the baby campaign, it was partially because I was trying to frame the issue in a way that people worrying about their jobs, their mortgages and cuts to their services could relate to. I was desperately trying to make relevant a subject that 99 per cent of the public find a complete, utter, total irrelevance.
Now I find the advert, as I’m sure many of you do, morally abhorrent. Yet there is surely a way for the Yes campaign to have framed the referendum in those terms too: “Do you care about the NHS? Do you want to have more say in how it’s run? You should have some more say in how you elect your MP then.” We are a Parliamentary democracy. We need electoral reform for better representation, so we can decide who cuts, and how much they cut, better. After all, much more than 50% of people in May 2010 voted for parties who promised slower cuts to those happening right now, but that is in no way reflected in the Parliamentary arithmetic.
Why on earth did the Yes campaign not attempt to do that? I’m sure you can guess by now…
h) Kicked the local Lib Dems’ arses into gear
The Conservatives put their mighty party machine behind a No vote. It would have been nice for the Lib Dems to do the same, as opposed to gently encourage a few activists to give out Yes leaflets and hope for the best. I’m sure it would have been less resourced than the one run by the Tory’s but the fact that not all those who voted Lib Dem last year voted Yes last Thursday shows that not enough was done to win over all the Lib Dem support.
What about the lies of the No campaign?
All this means that, although it would be nice to blame everything on the lies and misinformation put out by the No campaign, and the unpopularity of Nick Clegg, that doesn’t seem wash for me. We had money, but it was spent badly. Labour was split so badly because little effort was made to lobby them (and Labour MPs were put off voting Yes because of our central message). Our message wasn’t getting through, because it was rubbish. Nick Clegg is unpopular, but so is David Cameron. The No campaign was terrible, but as many people were put off by their tactics as voted No because of their lies. You can’t blame a defeat of this scale on one horrible poster, and ignore all the other stupidity that went on with our campaign, even if it is very frustrating that there’s no way of sanctioning the No campaign for putting a figure on posters all around the country that even they have admitted was made up.
The fact is that we cannot say there was a big conspiracy against us that stopped us winning. If you blame the press, or the No campaign’s money, or the “structures in society” for a No vote, you’re basically saying there’s nothing we could have done. You might as well blame the lizard people, or the Jews, for us losing. Whereas we have agency. That’s the crucial thing. We could have run a much better campaign and won. To say otherwise is foolhardy and risks not learning the lessons that I’ve spelled out in this blog post. Worst, it would be an abdication of responsibility.
The future of electoral reform
Even if we’d've had a much-improved Yes campaign, it may still have lost. As I wrote above, it was dealt a very difficult hand, and played it badly. Even if it still lost narrowly, A defeat of 55-45, could have been spun credibly as “Well, this motion only failed because more would prefer PR to AV”, since the pro-reform vote would have split three ways: Yes, No and Meh. A loss on this scale buries the prospect of reform of the House of Commons until about 2040 at least, surely?
I assume so. There are two main possible scenarios here that I can think of.
The first is that a No vote means the two-party system is entrenched. The Lib Dem vote shrinks, or the party splits, and its votes are redistributed between the Conservatives and Labour. First Past the Post is kept, and although electoral reformers won’t be happy, it won’t be another 30-35 years before anyone even dares to speak of reform again.
The second is that the trends we’ve seen since the mid-1970s continue. More people vote for parties other than Labour or Conservative. A sizable minority (say 10-15%) still vote for the Lib Dems, whilst UKIP and the Greens gather more and more votes. This means we see more coalitions, or parties winning parliamentary majorities on yet-smaller minorities of the vote. If that happens, the calls for some form of PR could come around quicker than you think. However, I’m not sure any government would actually change an electoral system that had served them so well (c.f. Labour 1997).
There are other short-term consequences that I’ll hopefully write about later this week. This post is long enough as it is.
If anyone still wants to read more on the AV referendum, as well as those pieces already linked to this, by No2AV’s press officer, is well worth reading.
I hope anyone reading this from Central Office (if they do read this) isn’t too offended by this post. I’ve tried to be as constructive as possible. What I want people to take away from this is the fact that the result wasn’t out of our hands. This referendum was winnable, if we’d done things slightly better. That, surely, should cheer us. Even if AV passed, it was going to be the first step of a long journey. Sadly, the journey for political reformers seems a lot longer now than it did on May 4th.
What’s most important is that we learn our lessons from this referendum and remember that we do have the power to change things. We do have agency, and there’s no big conspiracy stopping us from changing things. As FDR might have said, had he been involved with the Yes campaign, the only thing we have to fear is our incompetence.