The AV referendum campaign has not been a good advert for those who claim the educative value of referenda. It’s been a clash of myths, in which arguments have been deployed that, at best, are distortions, and at worst downright lies. What’s made things worse is that there seems to be a negative correlation between truth and efficacy: the more powerful arguments – those that might cut through to the public – are precisely those that aren’t true.
The Yes camp are currently moaning about this most, but both sides have been at it; it’s just that, judging from the polls, the No camp have been more effective.
But the claims made by some Yes campaigners that AV will end safe seats, for example, are just not true. AV would probably diminish the number of safe seats slightly, but plenty of safe seats would remain. Nor will it force MPs to work ‘harder’ – a claim that has particularly infuriated many MPs, especially those who were there into the early hours this morning voting on the Finance Bill. For sure, in marginal seats (but remember: that is, and will remain, only a minority), it will make political parties work a bit harder – as they reach out for second preference votes – but that’s a different claim. And so on, through most of their arguments.
The No side are just as bad. The claims about an end to one person, one vote, or the expense of counting machines, are all cobblers, and most of them know it.
It was probably inevitable that an argument about a preferential voting system – that was, ironically, no one’s first choice – turned out like this. As one of the No campaigners argued yesterday, it wasn’t their job to run a civics class; it was their job to win. And you don’t employ subtlety and nuance when you are trying to reach an electorate who for the most part know little and care less.
For proof of the latter, look out for turnout in London. In Scotland, Wales and – especially Northern Ireland – turnout will be artificially high, raised by elections to the devolved bodies. Ditto, if less dramatically, where there are local elections in England. But in London there is no reason to go to the polls except for the referendum – and, bluntly, no one expects queues to start forming outside polling stations like they did last year. Turnout in the last UK-wide referendum in 1975 was over 60%; in London this time it may not even reach a third of that.
But for those who are interested, and still undecided with just a day to go, the best single source of information remains the Political Studies Association’s myth-busting briefing paper, written by Alan Renwick.
And for those who want to watch the results come in, the Electoral Commission has set up a live feed, collating the returns from all over the country.
If the present polls are right, however, this will not involve much suspense. With polls now showing huge (and growing) leads for the No camp, it could effectively all be over as soon as the first few results come in.