Clegg’s dream will crash and burn – Kevin Meagher predicts tears for the Yes campaign

REFERENDUMS, the great Clement Attlee dismissively observed, are “devices for demagogues and dictators”.
There’s a third ‘D’. Desperate. They are a means of papering over political cracks; which is why a plebiscite is being dumped on the British public next year on whether we should scrap our first-past-the-post electoral system and replace it with the PR-lite Alternative Vote model.
Attlee’s successor-but-one, Harold Wilson, is the only leader to have held a national referendum. In his case on whether we stayed in the European Economic Community back in 1975. In that instance, collective Cabinet responsibility was suspended to allow a divided government to campaign on either side of the issue.

Something similar is planned this time. The coalition’s Darby and Joan, Mssrs Cameron and Clegg, will become more like ‘Burton and Taylor’ as they fight on opposite sides of the issue.
The first problem Mr. Clegg and his fellow travelling ‘Yes’ campaigners face is that the subject matter is positively narcoleptic. No-one cares about electoral reform. They really don’t.  Poor Lib Dems. It must hurt that their Holy Grail is, to borrow a Lyndon Johnson-ism,  “a bit like pissing down your own leg. It feels hot to you, but it doesn’t to anyone else.”
No wonder wily Danny Alexander wanted it implemented without a referendum in the post-election footise with Labour. The uphill struggle campaigners will face would tax Sir Edmund Hillary.
The second problem is that there is little accumulated experience in running a successful national referendum campaign. Cameron and Clegg were being wet-nursed the last time we had one. Political parties cannot deliver all their MPs and members, despite what their leaders want. There will be splits. There will be indifference. And, as it looks, the vote will foolishly be held at the same time as elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English councils.  Candidates and activists will be preoccupied in saving their own necks. Especially Lib Dems.
The only thing we have to go off is the experience of smaller-scale plebiscites. Personally, I’ve done three.
My first was back when I was a lowly press officer at Hyndburn council. Where is Hyndburn you ask? Precisely. That was the purpose of asking a slightly bemused electorate whether our sleepy east Lancashire council should rebrand itself as the altogether jazzier ‘Accrington and District’. The good folk of Oswaldtwistle, Church and Altham didn’t like ‘Accy’ getting all the action. So Hyndburn it remained.
And there’s the lesson for any referendum campaigner. People don’t really like change. And they certainly do not like being made to feel they can’t understand complicated issues. So they cleave to what is familiar and opt for the status quo.
My second was the Yes campaign on Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement back in 1998. This was an anomaly. A complicated series of issues that nevertheless reduced to a powerfully resonant shorthand: do you want peace and progress or not? A no-brainer for those in possession of their critical faculties.
My third is closer to what Nick Clegg will encounter. The experience of building a nascent ‘Yes’ campaign in the proposed referendum on elected regional assemblies back in 2004 scarred all those of us involved.
Like Cuban irregulars at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, (albeit with a worthier cause), we were willing to fight, but our political masters didn’t provide the air cover we needed. Only John Prescott in the Cabinet was sufficiently committed to the idea. In the end, ‘our’ referendum in the North West was taken off us and only the North East was green-lighted. To disastrous effect. The crushing defeat of the Yes campaign has sunk the concept of English regional government for a generation.
But it was our fault. We lacked a single compelling reason for the change. Exactly the problem Mr Clegg faces. Like us, he will look behind him and see very few True Believers as he is left explaining the finer points of electoral systems to the entirely disinterested doorsteps of Britain.
C’est la vie. This time I will sit back and watch as this chattering class hardy perennial crashes and burns next May; hopefully presaging a collapse of the coalition in the process.
Because the biggest difficulty facing earnest campaigners trying to get their countrymen and women to vote ‘Yes’ to something that sounds a bit pompous and esoteric is that it is simply more fun to say ‘No.’

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser to Shaun Woodward at the Northern Ireland Office.

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5 Responses to “Clegg’s dream will crash and burn – Kevin Meagher predicts tears for the Yes campaign”

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  2. Jacquie R says:

    Generally agree with this, but I think the timing is going to help Clegg, partly because those too apathetic to turn up for the referendum are more likely to to turn up where there is also a local election. I also think that, though he can’t admit it, Cameron is quite keen on AV because it could help prolong his term in office. In the end, though, what is really going to decide the outcome is how the Tory media play it. If they want AV and big it up enough, it could get through, despite the fact that the coaliton may be deeply unpopular by next May.

  3. Sunny H says:

    No-one cares about electoral reform. They really don’t. Poor Lib Dems.

    Heh, this may be wishful thinking. The pro-AV campaigners (not Clegg and Cameron obviously) will tie AV reform to the expense scandal. You still think people don’t care about that?

  4. Gary says:

    The campaigners will try to tie it to MPs expenses, but I don’t think that will work. Mainly because the two issues are not related, and I think AV campaigners will have a difficult time trying make the public think that they are.

    “Your local MP is a money-grabbing shitbag, who claimed for X, Y & Z from the public purse.”

    “Yes, that’s right, what do you propose to do?”

    “We intend to slightly tweak the method for electing your next money-grabbing shitbag”

  5. Andrew J Chandler says:

    I participated in two referenda. The first was the EEC in 1975, the second the Devolution debácle in 1979. The first, as you rightly point out, was a true debate across the whole political spectrum, hence the vote to stay in, I believe. In the second, the vote was ‘No’ by 4 to 1 in Wales, a rejection of discredited ‘establishment’ Labour government cynically trying to appease the nationalists upon whom it depended for votes in London and the association of Labour councillors with ‘jobs for the boyos’. The AV system is a long overdue & much-needed reform to our electoral system, which needs to be voted on separately from other issues, no matter what the turn-out. Linking it to other elections in an attempt to prove popularity will backfire on those who support it, because by then people will be even more angry with its main sponsors, the Lib Dems, just as the nationalists were unpopular in 1979 for propping up the Callaghan government. Those who can’t learn from the past are destined to repeat it..

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