The grotty, anti-politics, Yes to AV campaign deserves to lose

by ffinlo Costain

The Yes to AV campaign is flagging dismally in every poll and will almost certainly lose the referendum on Thursday. No wonder. From the start its organisers failed to understand that they needed to fight and win a single issue campaign, not an election.

Crucially they never understood that the No to AV camp had the easier task. No-ers didn’t have to win the case for first past the post (FPTP) – they simply had to convince people the case for AV was unproven.

The referendum will provide Britons with a once in a lifetime opportunity to make the electoral system a little bit fairer – but instead of making the case for AV, the Yes campaign has been a cheap and tatty, anti-politics affair. If the only reason to change the electoral system is that all politicians are scumbags, then why not just bring on the revolution?

By contrast the No to AV campaign has been a case study in excellence. No-ers have fought a Greenpeace-style single issue assault. In 1995, the environmental action group reversed Shell’s decision to dump the Brent Spar oil platform at sea and changed forever Shell’s disposal strategy. They fought the oil company with ruthless high profile polemic; they kept their message simple, and gave the media and the public a straight-forward demon to hate. The No campaign has followed this model and it seems to have worked. They’ve ramped up the fear factor, pumped up the volume of their indignation, exaggerated the threat of AV, and personified the enemy. Vote no, or get Nick Clegg – forever. Save the world from Clegg.  They’ve been highly organised, with crisp, well-produced leaflets and an exceptional web presence.

But if the No campaign has been pomp and circumstance, the Yes campaign has been tea in the parish hall. Changing the voting system is not like trying to push out a lazy incumbent MP who spends more time sloshing booze at the taxpayers’ expense than representing them in the Commons. While the Yes-ers did try a bit of agitprop campaigning, it was half-hearted and without conviction, and with no single person to demonise, they attacked the very establishment they sought to alter. They’ve rehashed the expenses scandal and moaned about jobs for life, but for the average voter the conclusion must surely be, “If Parliament’s so broke, it’s sure as hell gonna take more than AV to fix it”? Now, in the final week, the Yes-ers are scrabbling to raise the ghost of Thatcher, while still failing to comprehend that to create change for the better you need a positive vision of the future, not just a spectre from the past.

No matter how unfair, the No camp was right to campaign as they have – a campaign after all is about winning. But rallying the general public into an expression of fear is easy, and the vast sums of cash in the No camp coffers have made it easier still. As any campaigner knows, it’s straightforward to get people to sign a petition against the closure of a local hospital, even if it’s underperforming; against a wind farm that will alter the landscape, even if it helps save us from climate change; against a new and more complex voting system, when the old one frankly still works pretty well. Better the devil you know.

To get people out of their armchairs and rally in favour of something new is tough. To achieve it a campaign must express an exceptionally clear vision of why the change they seek is necessary; the language used must be positive, inspirational and factual. Spit and bile is not enough.

To win, the Yes-ers should have modelled their campaigning on charities like Cancer Research UK. Cancer Research exists to end something terrible that affects most people in Britain, but they don’t dwell on the cancer, instead they promote hope. The Yes-ers needed to recognise the cancer present in FPTP, acknowledge its effect on Parliament, but then provide the hope that together we can fix it. It’s a delicate balance. Unfortunately, the Yes campaign got so bogged down in describing the cancer that it failed to articulate the solution in a way that made people believe they could live in a world where politics once again benefits real people: the children, families and pensioners; the hard-working folk of Britain. They needed to make us believe in the cure; in the power of Yes. They haven’t.

To win on Thursday the Yes-ers will need a small miracle. That miracle won’t be found in the increasingly venomous spat between members of the political elite. Voters switched off from politics because of the name-calling and the hair-pulling. AV was supposed to be about a better politics, a cleaner politics, where each MP had more than 50% support, where on occasion parties would stop fighting and work together to produce solutions.

It is said that you get the politicians and the political system you deserve. The Yes-ers have fought a grotty little campaign that’s descended into scratching and biting, when instead they needed to paint a fresh vision of change and hope. They had a chance to create a progressive left of centre politics that would deliver for the majority of people in Britain and banish Tory excesses to the past. But sadly the No campaign was better – and the public appear to have spotted that the current system, which perpetuates school room scrapping, is probably the system most of us involved in politics deserve.

ffinlo Costain is a professional change campaigner, who will be voting Yes on Thursday.

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6 Responses to “The grotty, anti-politics, Yes to AV campaign deserves to lose”

  1. I think actually if they had got the anti-politics message right, they could have done better.

  2. Tokyo Nambu says:

    Ironically, the Greenpeace campaign you cite was based on incorrect information. As Wikipedia (yes, I know), says:

    “Greenpeace admitted that its claims that the Spar contained 5500 tonnes of oil were inaccurate and apologized to Shell on 5 September. This pre-empted the publication of DNV’s report, which endorsed Shell’s initial estimates for many pollutants”

    Shades of the £250m, I suspect.

  3. Richard says:

    Nothing but one long advertorial for ffinlo Costain.

  4. It would be nice to think that people would vote on the merits of AV, not of the campaign. There are some good Youtubes on vote-splitting. That’s what we need.

  5. @Guido Fawkes – I agree the Yes-ers could have got more traction in the early stages with a strong anti-politics message, but I don’t think that would have been enough – you still have to get people out to vote. Those who grunt and agree with a campaign slagging off MPs are likely to steer clear of a polling station. To change the system you have to offer a new dawn or people just switch off.

    @Tokyo Nambu – 😉 Yes, I was aware of the irony and synergies between the two campaigns (as implied in the piece). However, it should be said that the highly positive aspect of the Greenpeace campaign was that regardless of the contents of Brent Spar, Shell still changed their whole disposal strategy and now recycle used platforms instead of dumping them at sea.

    @Richard – Surely better for people to write from a position of knowledge and experience…?

  6. David Talbot says:

    All I want to know is what the hell “a professional change campaigner” is?

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