How not to run a referendum campaign

During the discussion in the press and the internet about the AV referendum result, one commentator described the Yes campaign in the Australian referendum on whether they should become a republic as the text book case for how to lose a referendum.

It was, but no longer.

For the rest of our lifetimes the "Yes to AV" campaign will be the textbook case on how to lose a referendum.

Both sides made some good points and some, shall we say, less good ones, though I think there is room for honest people to disagree on quite a few issues, such as how much more AV would cost and whether voting machines would be needed. (There isn't any reasonable doubt that AV would cost more.)

But the key difference was that the "Yes to AV" Campaign took for granted that it was the voice of progress and talked to a narrow chunk of society, while the "No" campaign was aimed with ruthless effectiveness at the concerns of much larger numbers of voters.

Coupling a sick child with the slogan "He needs a new maternity unit, not an alternative voting system" was a killer argument up there with "Labour isn't working" or "24 hours to save the NHS" in its' effectiveness (regardless of whether you agree with any of those slogans).

"Make MPs work harder" was not in the same league.

When there is a vote on a change to the status quo, especially one which is put to a referendum, the onus is on the people who are supporting the proposed change to make a positive and convincing case for it. The "Yes" campaign did not manage to do that in terms which resonated. And when they started attacking opponents of change, all shrewd observers knew that the game was up.

It is possible, indeed perhaps easier than it should be, to stop a change going through by attacking the motives, judgement, or integrity of the people proposing the change. But it is, and indeed should be, extremely difficult in normal circumstances to get a change through merely by attacking the defenders of the status quo. Perhaps a "Make it easier to throw the rascals out" campaign might have worked in the immediate aftermath of the MP's expenses scandal two years ago. But even that case wasn't effectively made.

The other suicidal error of the Yes campaign was not to attempt to recruit or use any of the people who supported AV from parties not on the left. For example, they could and, if they wanted to win should, have made more use of people like Nigel Farage. With the left split (most Labour MPs and councillors supported the "No" campaign) the "Yes" campaign could only have won with at least some votes from the centre-right. But they made no attempt either to recognise that not everyone on the left supported AV or to appeal to anyone right of centre who might have done so.

Voters who are right of centre mostly fall into one of two groups

a) those who like David Cameron
b) those who think he has conceded too much to the Lib/Dems

So when he started to campaign for "NO" the first group were obviously going to listen to him, and the second group were likely to conclude that if this was something on which DC was standing up to the Lib/Dems, this was probably going to be one of the times they agreed with him. If the "Yes" campaign had put Nigel Farage or someone similar onto the box to argue against the Prime Minister, he might well have had some influence. But the "Yes" campaign wouldn't touch him because they don't share his views. And failed to realise that building a coalition of people who agreed about the electoral system even though they disagreed about other things was precisely what they needed to do in order to win.

I always thought that a "No" was on the cards, but if the "Yes" campaign hadn't done almost everything possible to lose, it would have been an awful lot closer and might even have gone the other way. Basically the "Yes" team blew it - big time.


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