The No to AV campaign is too unpleasant to support, even if you wanted to

by Conrad Landin

In the forthcoming referendum, voters will consider contrasting factors when deciding where to place their crosses.

Some will vote on the merits of the alternative vote system, others on the basis of a long-term quest for proportional representation, for a third group, perhaps “basest of the three”, outlook on the current government will doubtless play a role.

Though there remains the under-discussed likelihood that Nick Clegg would use any Yes outcome to serenade a vindication of the coalition deal between his party and the Conservatives. And vindication it would be – this was, after all, the deal which saw every promise bar electoral reform sacrificed.

But despite my strong feelings on the issue, I can’t bring myself to join the campaign against the reform.

Figures in the Yes camp have suggested that their opponents come from a political spectrum narrower even than the Conservative party. With Labour heavyweights such as Ronnie Campbell and John Prescott weighing in with their endorsements of the campaign, we can see that this is far from the case. Yet there is something about the campaign’s tactics which makes one question whether the critics have it right.

I am not referring to the campaign’s generally-negative outlook, which has been criticised as “gutter politics” by AV enthusiasts. It’s fair enough to make voting “no” a campaign against Nick Clegg’s coalition deal. Dan Hodges has made the valid point that we should not dismiss negative campaigning out of hand.

However, Hodges is wrong to consider only the positive/negative dichotomy in assessing the AV debate. Indeed, he is in danger of forgetting his own (legitimate) justification of negative campaigning – that when one is ideologically opposed to an idea, it makes sense to attack it.

Coming from the left, indeed, I would find myself ill-at-ease picking up the phone at a No to AV canvassing session. No doubt they provide their volunteers with prompt sheets containing messages such as the extortionate cost of AV. This argument has been the cornerstone of the “no” campaign, despite only being one step away from suggesting that democracy be abolished altogether, with the saved cash going to maternity wards. It is the No campaign’s single biggest insult to the intelligence of the British public.

Besides, even down-and-dirty campaigns should be based upon truths. The high cost projection for introducing the proposed system is based on the calculation that it would require electronic voting machines, which is doubtable at the very least.

An even greater outrage has been the snide claim at the bottom of anti-AV material that “none of your taxes have been used to print this leaflet”, falsely implying that the Yes campaign is taxpayer-funded.

Worst of all is its blatant espousing of low-tax libertarian politics. I didn’t become involved in politics to jump on right-wing bandwagons, and nor, I hope, did anyone in the Labour party. It is, however, what we’d expect from a neo-liberal pressure group like the taxpayers’ alliance, whose founder, Matthew Elliott, is heading up No to AV.

It is clear that the AV debate has gone beyond traditional political divisions of left and right: in the Labour party, for instance, campaigners for all manner of leadership candidates are lining up with one another in the most bizarre combinations. But if the official “no” campaign wants to harness support on the left, it must not employ arguments that rely on a right-wing mindset.

Early opinion polls indicated that the public was less likely to be sympathetic to AV when the system was properly explained in polling interviews. This suggests that a fair campaign – negative if appropriate – based on the betrayals of the coalition deal, and indeed the truth that AV is not a proportional system – could be significantly more effective than a rationally-flawed, ideologically-narrow operation based on untruths.

Conrad Landin is doing his A’ levels.

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6 Responses to “The No to AV campaign is too unpleasant to support, even if you wanted to”

  1. Dan Hodges says:

    Nice piece Conrad.

    Don’t agree, but neatly argued.

  2. Roger says:

    Excellent piece, Conrad.

    But we on the Left who are opposed to AV have a problem in that we don’t run the ‘No’ campaign and so can’t control the piss-poor arguments used by the Tories who do.

    And we also have to deal with our leader and most (all?) of our shadow cabinet being in the ‘Yes’ camp – and it being important to our credibility to former Lib Dem voters and any possible future breakaway anti-coalition faction of Lib-Dems that we keep the promise we made at the last general election.

    Ed is still perceived as a weak leader so the last thing he needs is a huge show of disunity in his own party.

    And unlike the Tories many of us are only opposed to AV because it is not PR – and arguing from a double negative is just way too challenging for most electors.

    Plus there are many of of us for whom it also the best chance we are going to get to really kick Nick Clegg and to just possibly bring about the split in the Lib Dems that is the only hope we have for getting the Tories out before 2015 – but again that is just not a message you can use with the general electorate.

    So actually I think we are right to keep our opposition to AV low key – as it goes it probably will fail, Nick Clegg will be humiliated and the coalition shaken without us actively campaigning against it at all.

    And if the Yesses feel utterly betrayed and cheated by a deliberately unfair Tory-led No campaign then that is all the better for us.

  3. oldpolitics says:

    No mention of the Yes campaign being based around an anti-politics that falsely paints most MPs as venal and lazy (the average working week for them being of 71 hours)? A problem which doesn’t exist, and a solution which wouldn’t solve it if it did. Pretty poor campaigning.

    That’s quite apart from their attempt to smear No campaigners as being allies of the BNP, and a multitude of other lies.

  4. Of course the YES campaign has been pretty bad as well, but I wrote this as someone who plans to vote NO, but can’t stomach joining the official campaign for my own side.

  5. iain ker says:

    Both sides use spurious arguments to support their own case.

    The reality – you could barely put a cigarette paper between FPTP and AV.

    In the real world, no-one gives a stuff about AV vs FPTP.

    Waste of time. Waste of money.

  6. Roger says:


    You really don’t have to campaign personally on every issue.

    This is a classic example of one that it is actually better for us not to campaign on at all.

    However badly argued the No case is simply the stronger one and probably will triumph at the polls – all you and I need to do is turn out and vote.

    And if we did campaign we would be fighting our own people in the Labour party – a majority of whom do seem to support a Yes vote.

    For example out of 22 Labour candidates in my District Council election I am the only one who is a strong No – plus we have maybe one or two others who can see the tactical case for voting No – the rest are all pretty strong Yesses.

    So if I campaigned for a No we would just waste a lot of time arguing amongst ourselves when we should actually be out fighting for our own election.

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