Lessons to be learned from the Yes to AV campaign failure

Why did the Yes to AV campaign fail, and what can we learn from its mistakes? Compass campaigns organiser Joe Cox and writer and researcher Ralph Scott set out four reasons why the campaign failed to convince the public to vote for reform on 5 May

The Yes campaign had more money at their disposal and a double-digit point lead in the polls in June last year. Yet AV was rejected by around 70 per cent of the public last Thursday. Can future campaigns for electoral reform learn from the mistakes made and examined in this article, and does the campaign itself provide wider lessons for the Left? 

Mistake number 1: preaching to the converted

The most revealing aspect of the result is the handful of districts that actually voted ‘yes’ – Oxford, Cambridge, Lambeth, Southwark, Haringey, Hackney, Camden and Islington – oases of left-liberal intelligentsia all.

A crucial failing on this front is not getting Labour involved in the campaign from the very start. While Labour tribalists felt uneasy working for anything that would benefit the Lib Dems, the Yes campaign appeared similarly uneasy to really reach out to Labour activists and get them onside. There may be some truth to Oliver Huitson’s claims, as I’m sure the ambivalence was mutual. But it took far too long for the case to be made: that a Yes would have been beneficial to Labour and to the wider Left, and more importantly for Labour voters, incredibly damaging for David Cameron and the Tories. 

This argument only really surfaced two weeks before polling day, here and in the pages of the Observer, many months after the Labour big beasts (Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett, John Reid) had already shown their hands.

In an editorial, Anthony Wells of YouGov illustrated how vital the Labour vote was to the fortunes of AV:

“YouGov has been asking voting intention in the AV referendum regularly since June 2010. Initially, we found a strong lead for the Yes campaign, but this declined throughout last year, largely due to Labour supporters, who, while initially pro-AV, were moving against it.” 

There didn’t seem to be the understanding that people in the Labour heartlands trust John Prescott in full battle-bus mode more than they do Eddie Izzard – or that this referendum would only pass with their support.

The campaign was also clearly reluctant to have any involvement with UKIP, who could have delivered voters that no-one else on the campaign could. That Nigel Farage was only asked in the last two weeks is indicative of an unwillingness to get hands dirty and to recognise the awful cliché that sometimes in politics, the enemy of your enemy is your friend. 

Mistake number 2: by the people, for the people?

The campaign repeatedly claimed it was ‘about the people, not the politicians’. This is problematic on two fronts: it begs the question of popular support, and also assumes that a political campaign can be won without recognisable political figures and the party apparatus that comes with them. There are well-known stories of pro-AV MPs refusing to use Yes campaign literature because of its anti-politician rhetoric. Furthermore, the anti-politician message wasn't credible when the Yes campaign were staging cross-party press platforms packed with politicians.

Admittedly, the key political figure behind the campaign was being used to mobilise support by the other side, but the biggest boost in No2AV’s support came when Cameron spoke out vehemently against any change. And as Anthony makes clear, the Tories were running a strong and successful campaign under the radar to get out their vote.

Reviewing the districts that returned strong ‘Nos’ suggests that grass-roots Lib Dems were predominantly focusing on saving council seats. The referendum was comprehensively rejected in the South-West, an erstwhile Lib Dem stronghold. It’s even conceivable that the Lib Dem grass-roots chose to use both votes to deliver their verdict on the Coalition. 

Political parties and leaders can motivate people. The No campaign had the Prime Minister as its public face, but Yes to Fairer Votes put celebrities front and centre. As one Lib Dem minister put it, "You cannot have Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter getting down and dirty with Eric Pickles and Sayeeda Warsi.” 

Did anyone really think that Colin Firth's opinion on electoral reform mattered? The use of celebrities undermined the 'people's campaign' message.

Mistake number 3: being wet 

While the opening salvo from No2AV was too surreal in its crassness to be predictable, the Yes camp should have expected campaigning to get dirty, and responded. For example, why didn't the Yes campaign make more out of the fact that Nick Griffin was against AV? 

The Yes campaign even strengthened the No campaign's messaging. The £250 million figure was irrelevant – the message was that the referendum was expensive and Britain is broke. When some on the Yes campaign replied by suggesting that the referendum in fact cost £80 million, they were reinforcing, not combating this framing. The shrill cries of foul play firmly cemented the arguments, however untrue, in the minds of the electorate, and dragged all involved into the mud. As a result, the referendum campaign was not a good advertisement for democracy.

Who can really remember any distinct messages from the Yes campaign? There were perhaps two: MPs will work harder, and there won’t be another expenses scandal (more on which below). But we all remember the premature baby, Baroness Warsi’s speech on the BNP at Cable Street, that Australians hate AV, that it will cost £250m, back-room deals, weak government with President Clegg as the king-maker etc. etc.

Any future campaigns must be ready for slurs of this calibre, particularly if there will be limited Electoral Commission oversight over communications. By seeking electoral reform you are attacking the status quo, which won’t change without a struggle.

Mistake number 4: the message 

The two key arguments made by the Yes campaign were that MPs would have to work harder, and that it would reduce the likelihood of another expenses scandal. But these over-estimated the hatred that people feel for their MPs. 

People recognise that MPs do work incredibly hard – with some now sleeping in their offices to avoid the wrath of IPSA. Equally, the argument on expenses was flawed: both because there was not a particularly strong correlation between safeness of seat and expenses claimed, and because by the time of the referendum, much of the anger surrounding expenses had subsided.

The intellectual arguments that resonated most were practical and positive: the new system removed the need for a tactical vote, that the MP elected would be more representative of the will of the constituency and that it would lead to fewer safe seats. Yet cool, calculated arguments do not win elections or referendums; emotional messaging does. The no campaign's imagery, whether around Winston Churchill, sick children or ill-equipped soldiers, was hard-hitting and emotional. It seemed that no one in the Yes campaign had read Drew Westen, George Lakoff or Stephen Duncombe.

The No campaign's messaging was also very current – chiefly, we cannot afford the referendum (the power of this message derives from the fact that people are struggling to afford things in their own lives). It was about Nick Clegg, a figure unpopular with both left and right-wing voters. In contrast, the Yes campaign message 'Make MPs work harder,' could have been from 1911 or 2011.

The 'ground war' was largely successful for the Yes campaign but the 'air war' was a disaster. Grass-roots activism and small donation levels were vastly superior to the No campaign. Yet it wasn't enough, due to the problems with messaging and in reaching out to the wider electorate. The democratic reform movement must learn from this failure.

Joe Cox is Campaigns Organiser for Compass. Ralph Scott is a freelance writer and researcher.