The epic AV Referendum post-mortem blog: Evil triumphs when the good are led by incompetent halfwits

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:

Oh dear.

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.

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48 Responses to The epic AV Referendum post-mortem blog: Evil triumphs when the good are led by incompetent halfwits

  1. jim jepps says:

    Interesting piece (I did read the lot!)

    The two things I*’d disagree with you on here though is a) making it a referendum on Cameron. Actually, as your point about Farrage implies, the yes campaign needed to split the right as much as the no needed to split labour. If you make it a referendum on Cameron you actually cement Tory MPs and supporters to the No campaign. I think a key problem was the way the yes camp tried to make yes a lefty love-in which put off those on the left who don’t like smug people and of course convinced those on the right who didn’t know how to vote that they should vote no.

    The second area is something you left out. When you pick a fight you have to choose your ground correctly. AV was the wrong ground and this May was the wrong time. *That* is as much a lesson for future referendums as how rubbish the leaflets were. To campaign for something that most people had not heard of a year ago, and that many campaigners had never discussed or campaigned on before the referendum came up was madness.

    It allowed the no campaign to pose the question as ‘do you want safety/stability or something weird?’

    The other thing I agree with on is the pitch to the anti-politics vote being quite wrong. Partly because the anti-politics mood has been over hyped and partly because the one thing anti-politics are less likely to do than anyone else is… vote on a referendum that only political wonks care about.

    • Thanks Jim. Your post probably deserves more thought than I can give it at such an exhausting time. Bearing that in mind…

      a) The Tory vote cemented to No anyway, with Cameron’s campaigning so I’m not sure that would have made much difference had we tried to make it a referendum on Cameron. It seems there were plans to have a Tory Yes campaign (fronted by Michael Gove, of all people) but once they were ditched it was obvious we weren’t going to get many Tory votes. A shame, as the conservative yes leaflets were some of the best.

      b) You’re right that this referendum would have been less difficult to fight if it wasn’t AV and was instead a more radical reform. Sadly we couldn’t do much about that but complain at Nick Clegg’s negotiating skills. Also, having the Referendum on local election day made sense for Yes campaigners about a year ago, as it was thought that higher turnout in Scotland and Wales could see it passed. As it was, it was an error, but one only knowable with hindsight. The other disadvantage was that it meant that any Labour activists who did want to campaign for a yes vote couldn’t, because the council elections were a priority.

      Thanks for reading it all and finding it interesting!

      • jim jepps says:

        Remember that AV was part of the Labour 2010 manifesto and Ed Miliband campaigned for it but the no camp still split Labour.

        The point about cementing the tory vote is that the yes campaign were inadvertantly actively turning out the tory vote for no by painting av as an anti-tory measure. The yes camp needed to reassure tory voters that this was a change that they would like, not one that would cancel out their vote.

      • MatGB says:

        the yes campaign were inadvertantly actively turning out the tory vote for no by painting av as an anti-tory measure. The yes camp needed to reassure tory voters that this was a change that they would like

        Agree with that completely Jim, I managed to persuade several soft Tories to vote yes by making valid, strong, arguments, including that it would help cement the Coalition next time if there was another hung PArliament. I, personally, would prefer not to keep it after 2015, but if people explicitly vote for it, which AV would allow them too.

        Lots of Tory voters hate tactical voting, but would also like to vote for local Independents and similar, very easy to sell preferential voting to them if you do it right, but we didn’t even bother trying.

      • @Jim Reading the text of the Labour manifesto does reveal lines that show support for AV, beyond a simple promise to “hold a referendum on it”. However I’m hard pressed to recall where else Labour officially took a pro AV position in the lead up to the 2010 election. Certainly there was no formal national debate in the Labour Party to either uphold or overturn an existing policy resolution on the matter. (Nor, for that matter, did the Yes campaign trumpet the Labour Party as being officially pro AV but then Yes failing to do something means b***** all.) This leads me to think this is a case of the manifesto text writer going one step beyond the official position and no-one noticing or caring enough to call them out.

      • jim jepps says:


        the author of the labour manifesto was of course, drum roll, ed miliband… who appeared to be one of the only people in labour who wanted a yes vote.

        I vaguely recall Gordon came out for AV in one of the TV debates… or was that an elected house of lords?

  2. MatGB says:

    Agree completely, on virtually every point. The complete failure to make use of Lucas and Farage properly, whcih would’ve got a lot more people on side, was disastrous, and the lack of freepost? Gah!

    BTW, No definitely did a split freepost mailing, I got the first leaflet from them, my fiancée got the second. I’ve still got several boxes of undelivered leaflets in the porch, spending money on crap leaflets no one was going to deliver instead of on a decent freepost was a terrible decision.

    And yeah, failure to get the LD activist base mobilised properly was palpably stupid, it was happening, but not in a coordinated way, whereas the local Tories went all out on it. At the local count, I and a friend were scrutineering for Yes. No had half the Tory Cllrs with the group leader in charge.

    • Thanks Mat. It was the same at the Birmingham count. There was me and one other person, and about a dozen Tories. Completely agree on the leaflet front, too.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Agree with most of the post, but think the LD thing is a little harsh – right now, in a lot of places, we don’t *have* an activist base. I was in a target ward on Thursday (trying to do simultaneous GOTV for Lib Dems and Yes) and there were *five* people campaigning there. In Burnage South (which we lost after holding it for 19 years) we had *three* people helping on election day. The loss of a huge chunk of the activist base (and the panic of the rest as everyone struggled to hold on to their own seats) meant there was no realistic way of getting Lib Dems involved in any meaningful way…

  3. Scary Rob says:

    “Nick Clegg is unpopular, but so is David Cameron”

    I think the local election results have show that this is simply not true. It’s easy to think Cameron is unpopular when many of your politically-minded friends are left wing and you hang out with students a lot. Until I saw the election results, I would have believed it myself. I think what’s actually happened is that Clegg’s original backers feel betrayed by him (and rightly so – while I sympathise with the Uni fees position, I still think it was a foolish promise to break) resulting in a personal drop in popularity, while the attitude to the government as a whole is still one of healthy scepticism. The Tories, perceived as being in charge, are middling in popularity at the moment because the public as a whole haven’t been given a real reason to love or hate them, they’re just doing a job that we all understand is difficult right now.

  4. Andy says:

    The biggest reason for the failure of the yes campaign is the fact that not enough people wanted it enough to campaign for it because lets face it, it’s dire. All of the disadvantages of FPTP and none of the advantages of STV.

    Nick Clegg has sunk the Libdems with it. There really is no way back from here.

    • Mind you, that’s also what they said in ’83. I am now plagued with an image of the Pythons dressed as past LibDem leaders shambling across Parliament Square with their arms held out, chanting ‘braaaaiiiins’…

  5. Praguetory says:

    Excellent analysis.

  6. Laura says:

    Definitely agree with almost all of this.

    My only disagreement is about central campaign being largely lib dems as well as ERS/UD/TBP. I’m just not sure this is true and have spent most of the campaign complaining about lack of Lib Dem involvement at the top, because if there’s one thing the Lib Dems know how to do it’s run a grassroots campaign on a shoestring. They’re also obsessed with leaflets and understand about basic factors like targetting and squeeze. As a Lib Dem, it didn’t at all have the feel of a Lib Dem campaign – thought happy to be told I’m wrong if there actually were senior Lib Dems high up.

    Actually I think this was one of the problems with the campaign. One of the things No did very well was create a Tory campaign run with Tory organisation and resources, with Labour frontpeople. Yes assumed the Lib Dems were toxic and tried to set up a whole campaign structure on their own, which costs a fortune in organisers and takes a long time if you’re going to do it properly – which was time and money we didn’t have. I think we’d have done better had we tried to do something similar – have a Lib or Lab campaign with cross-party window dressing.

    Another factor you didn’t mention was the use of celebrities. People migth think Stephen Fry is funny or clever, but they don’t see why he should be telling them about electoral reform. They do listen to politicians they respect and who they assume know more about it than they do – the leaflet should have had people like Alan Johnson, Jack Straw, Caroline Lucas, Nigel Farage, and one of the Lib Dems with a bit more credibility, like Tim Farron or Simon Hughes. Or a mix of politicians, celebrities and ‘ordinary people’. Just celebrities put a lot of people off.

    • The Lib Dems may be good at local grassroots campaigns, but both the Euros and the London Assembly elections (and maybe also Wales & Scotland) have shown they’re actually rather bad at fighting broader fights where you need to actually reach out to areas where the local activist base is weak or non-existent. The campaign message needs to have sufficiently broad appeal and not be a core area strategy but again that requires thinking about the weak areas and not just listening to people from strong wards about what works there.

  7. “Evil triumphs when the good are led by incompetent halfwits” – Funny title and refreshingly clear analysis (altho for the record we don’t think FPTP is evil even if some of the No2AV tactics were awful).

    The Yes team were admittedly batting on a sticky wicket, but their openers failed to see off the new ball properly and their middle order just didn’t apply themselves. By the time the tailenders came in the No2AV bowlers were reverse swinging it all over the place and the last few AV rabbits were quickly sent back to their hutches!

    Kind regards

    Politics ‘n’ Stuff

  8. Hamish says:

    Interesting analysis. I agree with Jim Jepps that we really needed to split the right on this as well as appealing more to the left. For all we wanted to make this about “out with the old politics”, until more people care about electoral reform, it’s all about the tribes.

    I also think that on the back of every leaflet should have been a one-paragraph-plus-diagrams explanation of AV, in terms of multiple rounds in which every vote is counted in every round, to head off that rather effective “one man one vote” smear. Instead we just expected everyone to take our word for it that it would “make politicians work harder” — which many of us didn’t even believe ourselves.

  9. pb says:

    Good analysis – I would add one further point – the yes campaign turned off many Labour voters by implying that by voting no they were in league with the communists, or the BNP or anybody else they could think of. Any decent political campaigner knows insulting your opponent is hardly the best way to win them over.

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  12. Eamon says:

    Good article, Cory. The Yes Camapaign focused too much on telephone banking that never recruiterd the kind of number of volunteers that were needed and street leafletting and not enough on Billboard posters and internet adverts. The message of ‘making MP’s work harder’ played well with the anti-politics public, the kind of people that do not vote and not well with people engaged with politics, who thought it was nonsense.

    As you’ve correctly noted it was criminal that the Yes Campaign did not take the opportunity to send out a targetted mailshot, something that No2AV managed to send out to most of the country, which meant the mast majority of the public did not receive anything from the Yes Campaign. When I asked somebody from TBP in October 2010 (later involved with the Yes Campaign in Central Office) how he envisaged leaflets being delivered to people, he said he thought the parties would do that? How, as the Lib Dem’s do not have a base in much of the country, Labour were neutral (and always likely to be split) and the Tories were actively hostile even then, was this going to happen? More time needed to be spent working to rebuff some of the nonsense coming from No2AV, sadly all campaigns need a mixture of positive and negative elements.

    In short, as you correctly point out, the people involved at the top of the Yes Campaign, have never run a national campaign and it showed. They were well out of their depth, with the exception of Jonathon Bartley, who made some impressive appearances in the media, arguing the case for a Yes vote. Electoral Reform is dead for a generation, unless as you suggest we have a series of hung parliaments and the public demand Proportional Representation. How very depressing.

  13. Excellent post. I regret not campaigning more actively for a ‘Yes’, but disliked the turn the campaign took early on. Phonebanking does not appeal to me as a method of outreach. The failure of the Yes campaign to send out a mailshot was astonishing. You are right to target the ‘fairer votes’ slogan – it is the sort of language which speaks of an age where serious policy has been confused with public relations, and distracts the voter away from the issues we needed them to concentrate on towards issues of fairness which the No campaign, with their ‘democracy in danger’ rhetoric, could easily exploit.

  14. An interesting post overall. Whilst as a No campaigner I’m biased, I think there’s one other major point you’ve overlooked and that’s the official Electoral Commission booklet that was sent out. For those who never saw it this included explanations + diagrams of how the two systems work. The FPTP explanation took 59 words (excluding diagrams) to explain the whole system, the AV explanation took 64 words just explaining “Voting” alone a few hundred more to explain the count.

    For the No campaign this was an incredible gift. We could simply point to & reprint the AV explanation text as a sign of the system’s complexity even though some of our own attempts to explain it came in shorter. Whoever agreed such a lengthy explanation seriously screwed up.

    Also that explanation shot down one of your basic points about 50%, explicitly saying “Because voters don’t have to rank all of the candidates, an election can be won under the ‘alternative vote’ system with less than half the total votes cast.” (page 8)

    Some of the other adverts were shocking in their misfires. For instance how many groups actually use voting systems to decide whether to go to one of a number of pubs or a coffee shop?

    • MatGB says:

      Some of the other adverts were shocking in their misfires. For instance how many groups actually use voting systems to decide whether to go to one of a number of pubs or a coffee shop?

      Tim, that wasn’t an official ad or leaflet, but I personally wish that it had been, it was far more effective at getting across a big weakness of FPTP and a strength of AV.

      Obviously as a supporter of the status quo it won’t appeal to you, but it’s an example of the Spoiler Effect–how many Tories, for example, were complaining that UKIP cost them an overall majority?

      If you have multiple options on one ‘side’ of the debate but only one or two on another, you can get some weird distorted results–Duverger is very strong on this if you’ve not read his work (he wrote in favour of FPTP, but is mostly used as an argument against it these days, strange how things turn out).

      Obviously, we lost, and that annoys me–I really like preferential voting as a specific, and elimination ballots are good if there are multiple rounds. I strongly dislike one round eliminations (as used in France), and can’t stand the system used for UK Mayoral elections.

      But yeah, the EC leaflet really didn’t help–I can explain AV quickly, easily and effectively, but all the discussion was about how complex it is. I’ve hand counted fairly big AV ballots, it’s not difficult, and works well where used.

      Ultimately, the voting system used determines the party system and the way we do politics–losing AV loses preferential voting, and the effect STV would have on loosening party controls and party lines is one of the things I came into politics to fight for.

      Ah well, c’est la vie–it looks like Rupert’s right, preferential voting is dead for now, we’ll get saddled with some abomination like AMS.

      • Interesting to raise UKIP, because leaving the EU is to a section of the rightwing chattering class equivalents what changing the voting system is to the liberal ones – a pet cause they believe the public strongly support and if only the wicked politicians would allow a referendum the public will flock to the polls and massively vote it through, yet it really isn’t a priority of the voters at large. They also don’t really understand much of the UKIP support base, and frankly complaining that another party is eating into your base is like the manager of a failing McDonalds branch blaming it all on the existence of Burger King.

        (But it’s another failing because UKIP is one of the best Conservative arguments for AV. And for winning Conservatives over to STV you could do worse than try the Douglas Carswell line – he doesn’t give a toss about the mathematics but believes STV will bring market choice to political representation.)

        As for the beer ad, the reason many found it silly is because normally you would decide first whether to go to a pub or not and then which one. Or better still go on a pub crawl.

      • MatGB says:

        for winning Conservatives over to STV you could do worse than try the Douglas Carswell line – he doesn’t give a toss about the mathematics but believes STV will bring market choice to political representation.

        It’s near the top of my list of reasons as well, I was surprised Carswell opposed AV given the close links between systems, but…

        The other line that sometimes works is pointing out that single member seats as standard are a modern abomination introduced by Labour to favour them, we should go back to Borough and County seats properly, but that normally involves dealing with complete disbelief on actual history, etc.

        But yeah, agree on the first and last–I’m not saying the pub one is good, but it was better than anything official. Which is depressing.

        I get the diverse UKIP vote better than many–Devon upbringing, I knew one of their former MEPs when I was a kid, etc. It’s not a coincidence they do less well where the BNP are stronger, but it’s also not a coincidence the LD vote collapses in those areas on Euro election day. Very weird demographics.

      • Single member seats date back, I think, to at least the union with Wales and they had a lengthy existence after that (the 1832 & 1867 Reform Acts tended to vary the number of members per borough rather than redraw the map). However making them standard predated the Labour Party by 16 years – it was a consequence of negotiations between the Liberals and Conservatives that produced the Third Reform Act of 1884 (though the actual redistribution itself was separate legislation). Labour in 1948 were only just clearing away the handful that had survived the 1884 & 1918 redistributions.

        As for Carswell, the key selling point of STV for him is that constituents would have a choice of which MP to go to during the parliament. Any single member system fails on this point. He’s also realistic to know that a party fielding multiple candidates in an optional AV constituency is suicidal so it can’t be a substitute for his beloved primaries. The remaining links between STV & AV are just not selling points for him.

  15. Jack P says:

    Cory, you missed this link which chimes with much of what you say.

  16. The referendum was lost because the wrong question was asked, and it was presented as a binding referendum.

    Next time we should follow the New Zealand example. The referendum question should be a non binding question, simply, ‘Should we change the voting system?’

    There would be a much better chance of getting a YES result, because the referendum debate would be all about FPTP, which is difficult to defend. ‘Non binding’ is less threatening, and can encourage people to vote for change.

    With a YES vote, in even a nonbinding referendum, we would be on the road to PR. It will take a while, but FPTP will serve up another blatantly absurd result sooner rather than later.

    We should be looking more at AMS, keep the single member constituency and simple voting and counting and abandon preferential systems such as STV. Keep it simple.

    For an ‘AMS’ type PR system where all MPs are constituency MPs, that avoids the problems inherent in party lists, google DPR Voting

    • Actually New Zealand was slightly different, with two referendums. The 1992 referendum was non-binding with two questions: 1) Should we replace FPTP? 2) If we replace it, what with? This returned a big vote for “replace” and strongest support for AMS (known as “Mixed Member Proportional” – MMP there). Then there was a binding referendum in 1993 that pitted MMP against FPTP.

  17. John Cooper says:

    I thought it sad that the best AV explanation was the Lets AV a Beer flier that went round – for me the problem with the campaign was an assumption that AV is ‘difficult’. No it isn’t – it’s as easy as 123.

    It’s odd really – the campaign should have had a good, clean message and instead fought multiple battles all at once while No2AV enjoyed being the establishment and generally won.

    • Casting a vote is easy under AV but I’ve lost count of the number of AV elections I’ve counted over the years that have had many FPTP style votes cast (and even some candidates have campaigned with crosses on their material). The “difficult” bit is in explaining how the votes are converted into the election winner even before you get to the philosophical issues.

      • Bruce T Brown says:

        So the reason for your backing AV is because some voters using AV may merely state one preference. Is that a reason for denying those who prefer to state preferences the right to do so? Surely not!

        If just one “X” has been written on a ballot sheet then one of three conditions apply.

        1. I accept all remaining candidates equally;
        2. I reject all remaining candidates equally;
        3. I don’t know.

        All conditions have an equal value have a value of zero or 1/n (where n=the number of remaining candidates). Redistributing such votes have an equal outcome by adjusting the tallies for surviving candidates by the same value.

        However you debate this voters have made a choice.

      • Almost every set of AV rules accepts a single X as a first preference (and those that don’t soon find themselves in a mess), especially in countries where the electorate is likely to be used to that. However thanks for inadvertently demonstrating more confusion!

        Our opposition was based a belief the current system works well enough and AV offers no significant benefit that outweighs the detriments, particularly the preference harvesting it would encourage.

  18. Bruce T Brown says:

    Take heart reformers. Baroness Shirley Willams, Any Questions, May 6, identified the need to address the youth vote. Also Polly Toynbee, Newsnight, May 9, attributed London’s YES support to disaffected youth.

    SW suggests that the subject will be back on the table within ten years. My guess is that when it does the debate will be between FPTP and PR. The Tory 1922 committee may rue not going with AV. AV would give the Tories reasonable defence against PR but FPTP may not be defensible.

  19. Laura says:

    I’ve been thinking some more about the phone banks. You say that no major parties use them, which isn’t actually true – if you read Lord Ashcroft’s book about the 2010 campaign (everyone should) or the Kavannagh and Crowley book about the 2010 election (again, everyone should), it’s clear that all the major parties do use phone bnaking. And obviously we all know about Obama…

    The thing is, that they use it because they have a problem, where they have large numbers of activists in ‘safe’ or no-hope areas, where campaigning isn’t needed, and need to deploy them in a few swing seats that might be miles from where they live. So phone banking is a very effective way to target your national activist base on a small area. It was particularly useful in the OES by election, where snow made travelling difficult and people were unwilling to open their front doors and chat. In the US it’s even more important as the distances are much greater so bussing people from low-density campaign areas to high-density campaign areas isn’t realistic.

    The trouble is, that doesn’t apply to a situation where the entire voting population is the target electorate and we don’t have the data to ruthlessly target swing voters. Similarly, as pointed out in Andy’s piece, phone banking isn’t much good when everyone’s a don’t know. It works well for the parties during an election, because most people have a default party and know what it is, so you can gather good data and use it for knock ups.

    Phone banking is a good tool in the right circumstances, but the decision to use it for this campaign I think rested on a fundamental misunderstanding of it’s benefits and of the ways in which a national referendum differs from an election campaign.

  20. Bruce T Brown says:

    Tim Roll-Pickering says:

    “As for the beer ad, the reason many found it silly is because normally you would decide first whether to go to a pub or not and then which one.”

    There may be some truth in that but having decided to go for a beer the choice of pub is still essentially chosen by preferential voting.

    It seems to me that the Yes2AV campaign was bound to falter once No 10 threw its weight behind the NO campaign and peddled serious untruths in an attempt to scare the electorate. It is true that the YES campaign’s “make your MP work harder” and “Tackle jobs for life culture” were probably inappropriate because they missed the point – the election of an MP who had the broad acceptance of most voters in a constituency.

    A big problem for the NO camp was that in order to establish the case for FPTP it had to be reasonably sure that its target audience had a decent grasp of AV and its merits. The NO camp had to obfuscate as much as it could. Unfortunately it resorted to promoting serious untruths.

    It appears that the cost of introducing AV will cost nothing like the Tory headline figure of £250m. Even if the cost of education was close to the figure suggested the cost of manually counting votes under AV would be much less than £10m. More critically the implication that votes are unequal was a serious mistruth.

    Finally, the PM said that AV is un-British. The NO result has now given us a serious constitutional crisis. The Lords Speaker is elected by AV as are the chairs of the parliamentary select committees. However you interpret the PM’s campaign rhetoric we are left with key parliamentary offices elected by an un-British system in which it appears that some Peers and MPs are unfairly allowed more votes than others. No doubt this issue will be shelved and both Peers and MPs will conveniently ignore it.

    I suspect that Tom Roll-Pickering will attempt to kick this fact into touch.

    • Firstly the campaign was not a “Tory [sic] campaign” – it was run independently with support from multiple quarters, including from a large chunk of Labour. Indeed the two most controversial pieces of No material (the cost posters and the highlighting of Clegg’s broken promises) were driven by Labour campaigners.

      The cost figures included the assumption that counting machines would be used. Yes they’re not used in Australia but they are used in Scotland for council elections where the arguments equally apply. They’re also used for the Mayor of London. Such a creeping use suggests they would have come in as a “modernisation” move regardless of what the initial legislation said – especially given the “Save Election Night” campaign & legislation – and the calculations were done on that basis. The Yes campaign spent a lot of time complaining about the figure but I don’t recall any attempt to calculate & circulate their own costings.

      “Unequal votes” – this stems from how one views voting. At present most people voting for fringe parties are using their vote to “send a message” to the political classes rather than others voting for the major parties who are deciding who their local MP is. AV would allow the former group to simultaneously send a message *and* have a say. Whether you regard that as a single or multiple votes is ultimately a philosophical point.

      Lastly a constitutional crisis is a breaking down in the smooth order of government because of problems in the way the system is designed that do not produce the normal smooth results. A few officers within Parliament being elected by a voting system that the public at large have explicitly rejected is not a serious crisis by any means. Personally I would sweep away the use of AV in Parliament completely but in the meantime it doesn’t pose anything like the problems your hyperbole suggests.

      • Bruce T Brown says:


        You don’t say whether you would replace AV in Parliament with FPTP or a PR system. I do not for one moment believe that you would accept appointments that are not broadly acceptable to most MPs/Peers. I cannot see either of the Speakers carrying authority if they only receive say 33% of positive votes under an FPTP vote.

      • Acceptability is a slightly different concept from support. In a number of organisations it’s not uncommon for the person selected to then be subject to an approval vote to demonstrate whether they are sufficiently acceptable overall regardless of how many voted for their opponent. This happened with the Commons Speaker on the old rules and I think it may still do on the new ones. Whilst the formal rules may just require a simple majority, for some posts such a result is untenable as they would lack a broad outreach. A candidate may have only received 35% of the vote in a strong race, but if they then get a near unanimous adoption vote then they have shown that overall they command acceptable. A lot of the voters for losing candidates will normally not have a problem with the winner because goodwill and the view that the winner is the winner fair & square even if they weren’t the individual voter’s choice will bring over many more people after the vote. Conversely in a polarised situation a candidate may get 55% of the vote (whether by FPTP or after transfers) but be highly objectionable to a substantial minority and their position, especially if they’re chairing either a House or a committee, will be untenable even if they formally retain majority support.

  21. Parasite says:

    Interesting piece.

    I don’t think you deal enough (perhaps because it’s an insider’s piece and so you know more about/make more of the internal mistakes) with where it all went wrong with the “progressive majority” circle-think.

    I found (as a Tory, canvassing for local elections) that every time someone like Vince Cable or Andy Burnham said this was a way of keeping the Tories out and cementing a Labour-Lib Dem-Green-“progressive majority” coalition, Tory voters on the doorstep volunteered that they were voting No, completely unprompted.

    Surprisingly enough, Tory voters’ opinions of a system where the main benefit, its leading voices were telling us, is entrenching the centre-left and keeping the Tories out, just went down and down and down throughout the campaign.

    But we also got it from Labour and Lib Dem voters: the ordinary man in the street, even if he is Labour or Lib Dem, doesn’t necessarily like the idea of an electoral system that can be used to unfairly keep his opponents out. Probably because with a bit of intelligent campaigning from his opponents, it might end up being used to unfairly keep the party he supports out.

    I suspect Yes campaigners didn’t get this but, even worse, that they still won’t get it post-May 6, and that the self-reinforcing groupthink of a “progressive majority” will carry on. That’s bad because as a democrat I understand the Tories can’t be in forever and one day there has to be a Labour government, but as a Tory I want it to be a sensible Labour government, not the idealist pie-in-the-sky product of Islington intelligentsia, telling one another Tories are evil.

  22. Pingback: Look Left – One week on from the referendum, one year on from the coalition | Left Foot Forward

  23. Councillor Mike Ward says:

    First Past The Post describes AV better than it does our existing system, where there is no post. For as long as we call the existing system FPTP we will never convince the public that it is a bad system.

  24. patrickhadfield says:

    Thanks for an excellent summary. I think you pretty much nailed it.

    I campaigned for a Yes vote. I distributed leaflets and made many calls. The campaign messages were dreadful, and I chose use only those I found convincing – mostly the need to increase MPs’ accountability.

    Whilst the local organisers worked hard, there was something dreadfully amateurish about it.

    We won in my constituency – Haringey – but I don’t believe the work I put in gotanyone to switch from Don’t Know to Yes. I think appealed to the wrong voters – it worked for people who wee going to vote Yes already.

    A wasted opportunity.

  25. Pingback: AV Referendum « Confused Politics

  26. Cylux says:

    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.

    To be honest, keeping that level of complete incompetence out of politics IS a rather worthy cause.

  27. Pingback: Did No to AV win or Yes to AV lose? | Theopolitica

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