Losing the AV referendum: a personal view from the Conservative Yes Campaign

The Chairman of the Conservative Yes Campaign describes how his party was sidelined from what was intended to be an all party campaign. He argues that the support of the Conservatives and Greens was critical to a Yes vote, while the Lib Dems' decision to take the lead set them on the road to failure
John E. Strafford
18 May 2011

On 5th January 2011, I met with John Sharkey – Campaign Director of Yes to Fairer Votes – and I agreed to be Chairman of the Conservative Yes Campaign. The three main points which arose from this meeting were that:

1)   The Yes campaign was to be a people’s campaign driven by the people and not by politicians.

2)    Detailed research by ICM had shown that in an opinion poll the Alternative Vote had a 60% to 40% lead over First Past The Post. The majority in favour was highest amongst young people, diminishing with age until at the age of 65 the majority switched to First Past The Post.   40% of Conservative voters were in favour of the Alternative Vote.

3)    The campaign was to be an all party campaign.

The key elements which flowed from this information were that:

1.    Conservative votes were a critical element in the campaign, particularly as the Labour Party was split.

2.    Conservative Party members were barren ground as the average age of a party member was 68.

3.    Voters over 65 were more likely to vote so it was essential to get out the young people to vote.  Social media would be critical in this.

No budget was agreed for the Conservative Yes Campaign, but it was anticipated that funds would be available from Conservative Action for Electoral Reform and donations.   A person was appointed as the link between the Conservative Yes Campaign and Yes To Fairer Votes.   We lost this link half way through the campaign.

It became apparent early in the campaign that the Liberal Democrats were taking the lead, particularly due to their connections with the Joseph Rowntree Trust, which was to be a major funder of the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign. (Anthony Barnett has published his own in-depth critique of the trust's role in the campaign here on OurKingdom.) The other major funder was the Electoral Reform Society.   At this stage it seemed as though the referendum would be won and the Liberal Democrats wanted to get the political advantage which would arise from winning. 

The objects of the Conservative Yes Campaign were:

1)    To provide a focal point for the Conservatives who supported Yes.

2)    To identify supporters, and channel their names to Yes To Fairer Votes.

3)    To be spokesmen for the Conservatives.

4)    To speak at local and national events.

5)    To disseminate information and rebut the Conservative No campaign.

In pursuing these objectives we set up a website and Twitter account and printed Conservative Yes literature for use at meetings and on street stalls.

On 18th February David Cameron made a speech opposing the Alternative Vote.   Conservative Yes wanted to issue a rebuttal, but the Yes To Fairer Votes Communications Director objected and said that if we went ahead with a press release we were on our own.   We went ahead with a watered-down release but media enquiries were not passed on to us by Yes To Fairer Votes.   It became clear to me at this point that Yes To Fairer Votes did not really want Conservative involvement.   Whether this was because of an unwritten agreement between Nick Clegg and David Cameron that the campaign should be low key I do not know, but it was fatal for the Conservative Yes campaign.   Cameron, under pressure from his backbenchers, was able to consolidate Conservative support for the No campaign.   Conservative MPs, MEPs and members of the House of Lords backed off from the Yes Campaign when they saw that there was no Conservative voice being heard.

On 19th February the Guardian published a two-page article on the referendum which was an interview between me and Margaret Beckett.   Yes To Fairer Votes were not enamoured because the interview was not arranged through them.

A setback for the Yes Campaign came with the refusal by Conservative Central Office to allow a fringe meeting at the Conservative Spring Forum. The Freedom Association who had offered to have a debate eventually gave in to pressure so no debate could be held at their fringe meeting.   Nevertheless, we had two speakers in favour of Yes at the Tory Reform Group meeting. We also distributed some 1,000 leaflets at the Spring Forum.   The Conservative Yes Campaign realised that we were having an impact on the No campaign when I was subjected to a vicious smear campaign the same weekend as the Spring Forum.

Throughout February, March and April the Conservative Yes Campaign put up speakers for lots of meetings on the referendum.   Sometimes these were debates with the No campaign but on other occasions they were on a Yes platform.  We had speakers at Conservative Association meetings, university meetings, and public meetings and also at meetings organised by independent bodies.   The No campaign put up some of their top speakers against us including Mathew Elliott, Stephen Parkinson and Charlotte Vere.   Yes to Fairer Votes took no interest.   Some of the meetings were videoed and extracts shown on You Tube, where they got just under two thousand views.   What became very clear at these meetings was that the younger the audience the more favourable they were to the Yes campaign.   Conservative meetings were difficult probably due to the age of the ordinary Party member, and pressure was put on Conservative Associations not to have debates with us.   On one occasion a debate was cancelled just two days before it was due to take place.   We won the debate organised by Oxford East Conservative Association – perhaps a good augury for the referendum as Oxford voted Yes in the referendum.

A major defect of the Yes campaign was to allow it to become party political:

-       Ed Miliband wouldn’t share a platform with Nick Clegg

-       UKIP were excluded until the final phase of the campaign

-       The Green Party only had a minor role

The second major defect was to allow the politicians to take a major role, contrary to the original intentions that the campaign would be a people’s campaign.   That original message was lost.

The third major defect was the way in which celebrities were used.   Eddie Izzard goes down well with young people so he should have been used on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.   I am afraid that Conservatives see him as a transvestite comedian and were unlikely to accept advice from him.   He should have been kept out of the mainstream media.   Yes To Fairer Votes were mesmerised by the fact that he had 2,500,000 Twitter followers.   Richard Wilson is great for Labour supporters but anathema to Conservatives.   At no time was advice sought, nor did any discussion of these issues take place.

The Conservative Yes Campaign was not invited to any launches, rallies or even invited to sit on the platform at any Yes to Fairer Votes meetings.   Only at the last rally did Andrew Boff, a Conservative London Assembly member, appear on the platform.   Effectively, the Conservatives were air brushed out of the Yes to Fairer Votes Campaign.   If you want to run a successful all party campaign on electoral reform you cannot exclude the biggest party of all, particularly when the second biggest party is split down the middle. 

In the next five years there is likely to be another referendum of one sort or another on electoral reform.   To be successful, reformers need to do the following:

1)    Someone has to be in overall charge.

2)    There must be a Management Team with clear lines of responsibility.

3)    A Council should be set up on which all the different organisations including the political parties are represented.   This Council will be responsible for co-ordinating the different groups.   The Management team should report to it and it should meet at least once per month during the campaign.   Budgets and income and expenditure should be agreed with the Management Team.

4)    If you are to run a people’s campaign you need to demonstrate that ordinary people are supporting you.   There should have been at least two mass rallies of supporters during the campaign fronted by ordinary people, not politicians.

Finally, I would like to thank all those that helped the Conservative Yes Campaign.   With virtually no resources and little if any support, the bit we did do was well done.   Peter Facey and Mathew Oliver of Unlock Democracy were particularly helpful.

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