‘Too often the debate has been about party politics and the public has been shut out of discussing how we choose our MPs.’
So said Katie Ghose, Chair of the euphemistically titled YES! to Fairer Votes and CEO of the Electoral Reform Society, in her final speech of the AV campaign. In that one line, Katie unintentionally captured exactly what was wrong – not with the ‘debate’ in general – but her campaign in particular, and why it was so comprehensively defeated last week.
Back in January 2011 the NO to AV campaign, for which I was the Head of Press, faced a dilemma. We knew we were being outspent – leaked documents in the Sunday Telegraph had revealed the YES campaign already had around £2 million in the bank, and we weren’t even close to a quarter of that.
They had also recruited Obama’s digital team, established local campaign offices and phonebanks the length and breadth of the country, and were planning a huge advertising buy.
Faced with such a huge discrepancy in spending, we knew NO to AV had to utilise our slim resources in the most effective way possible – by controlling the media, otherwise known as the ‘airwar’.
The trouble was, the media weren’t interested in AV. Up until this point we’d had two good media days. The first was when we announced our Patrons, ruffling many a feather by pulling out senior and respected Labour figures to work alongside Conservative cabinet ministers. The second was when we followed it up a month later by announcing that over 100 Labour MPs were set to vote NO.
Every other piece of research or story idea we’d released had been ignored, buried or slipped away unnoticed. It was clear that the only time the Alternative Vote would be of interest to journalists was when the story had a political edge – hence our two isolated successes.
We needed a new strategy.
So, if the only way we were going to compete with the YES to AV cash was by utilising the media, and the only way the media were going to write about AV was if we made the fight political, then that was exactly what we had to do.
The first part of the strategy was to make the argument about the cost of AV. This proved an instant winner with the friendlier newspapers. The mid-markets, tabloids and even the broadsheets began to run stories about our £250 million figure. And when that interest began to die down, the YES campaign strode into the argument and started talking about it all over again!
In focus groups in October 2010 not one person had talked about cost. When we re-ran the groups in March 2011, every group repeated the £250 million cost of AV back to us.
The second part of the strategy was to make it a referendum on Nick Clegg. If we talked about Nick, the YES poll numbers fell. We created adverts and leaflets only designed to be talked about in the media, and the papers duly obliged.
And, just as we ran out of stories about Nick Clegg the YES campaign were once again kind enough to get his name back in the papers. When Ed Miliband played footsie with Nick and saying first he would, then he wouldn’t, share a platform with the Deputy Prime Minister that was further good news for us.
By the beginning of April we faced the same dilemma we’d had in January. Our stories highlighting the claim that one of the YES campaign’s largest donors (the Electoral Reform Society) had a financial interest in AV briefly titillated the media. But journalists judged our follow-ups uninteresting. If they didn’t fit into the prism of coalition politics, the media turned its nose up at AV stories.
Just as with Cost and Clegg, it was YES that saved the day, this time in the form of Chris Huhne. Understandably frustrated with the way the YES campaign was being run, the Energy Secretary, alongside Vince Cable, stepped in to assume control.
Their method for wrestling the advantage back from NO to AV was to use a different senior Lib Dem each week to say something outrageous and newsworthy. It began with Huhne calling Sayeeda Warsi ‘Goebbels’ and continued with attacks on the NO campaign from Paddy Ashdown, Huhne again, Simon Hughes, Huhne some more, Tim Farron and one Chris Huhne.
Every Sunday throughout April, one Lib Dem grandee after another would appear in the Observer or the Independent on Sunday saying something more headline-grabbing than the next. And each time the following week was dominated by their outbursts.
If, therefore, Katie Ghose wants to blame someone for the debate becoming about party politics in the final four weeks of the AV campaign, she need look no further than the Lib Dems.
But, in truth, she shouldn’t blame them, or anyone else.
As the final and emphatic result showed, the public simply did not want to discuss how we choose our MPs. The media knew this and so only ran those AV stories that were about something else than the precise technicalities of reform. The NO campaign, of which I am proud to have been a part, appreciated this media reality and so gave journalists those stories we knew would interest them. At the end of the day, senior Lib Dems knew this too, and came to use the AV referendum as means of sounding-off about the coalition and the Conservatives.
The lesson for future campaigns should be clear: if you try to make a referendum about one issue, and the media aren’t buying it, you are doomed to failure.
On Friday, Katie and the Yes campaign learned this lesson the hard way.
Dylan Sharpe was Head of Press for NO to AV and holds a BA in History and Politics from the University of Nottingham.