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AV: how No won

‘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.

Published inAV campaignBritish Politics


  1. Mark Berry Mark Berry

    “the public simply did not want to discuss how we choose our MPs” and neither did you obviously! You did not want to have the debate about democracy, you turned it into the politics of personality – I heard several people saying that they voted NO as a vote of no-confidence in Clegg. This is shameful and only serves to further debase our politics sinking it deeper and deeper into the mire of the “X-factor”. If you really believe in the democratic benefits of FPTP over other systems then you should have had the integrity and skill to make that case, instead you made spurious financial claims and personal smears, shame! By the way we all wait with bated breath for the announcements on the new incubators and military supplies that will be procured with the money you have saved us!

  2. Malcolm Chalmers Malcolm Chalmers

    This is a somewhat depressing article to read. You talk with great pride of how the public parroted back your £250m figure – but it’s been widely proven that that figure is a complete fabrication. You then talk about making it a referendum on Nick Clegg, when the importance of the vote went way beyond whatever one (understandably villified) MP said about it.

    Is it really the case that the NO campaign couldn’t win by focussing on the merits of FPTP, and had to rely on made up figures and public distaste towards the libdems? If so, isn’t that a sad indictment of your campaign?

  3. You entirely miss the main media issue.

    The campaigning by the media.

    The media chose to campaign for a No vote.

    You may have been ‘clever’ in getting headlines, but that does not explain why the media adopted the position they did.

    Unless you think newspaper editors/proprietors made their choices based entirely on campaign material?

  4. Alan Rae Alan Rae

    You should be really ashamed of yourself

    You may want to crow about how clever you are but the future of our country is too important for this childish patronising approach to politics

    An opportunity has been lost because of your vindictive disinformation campaign

  5. LaughingPoliceman LaughingPoliceman

    Can I just say that to criticise your opponents for NOT using arguments you can beat; but instead choosing to put forward their best case, is pathetic and unmanly.

    In this case either the people on the YES side weren’t up to the job or their arguments were second best. Either way it is their own inadequacies of comptence and judgement that are at fault.

    The whining self-pity of the losers convinces nobody and taints their cause with their own character flaws. Almost irrespective of the issue, when I see contestants blaming anyone other than thesmelves for losing a fair fight where the rules were the same for both sides, it revolts me and I am glad they lost. It simply isn’t an adult or dignified way to conduct yourself.

    • Mark Berry Mark Berry


      It’s not about “using arguments you can beat” unless that is you think the the democratic reasons for keeping FPTP were easy to beat??? It’s about both campaigns failing to rigorously but simply making the real case for either keeping the status quo or changing the system!

      Resorting to pathetic electioneering, smears, false figures and twisting the argument into a vote of confidence in Clegg simply shows that the NO campaign were unable of making a good and convincing argument for the democratic benefit of the FPTP system! Rather than gloating about this Sharpe should be downright embarrassed at the campaigns incompetence in making the real argument, resorting to tricks and playground politics and/or supporting a system which they cannot convincingly prove to the public to be the best one!

      • Timbo Timbo

        No Mark, he should be proud of doing a good job and helping them win.

        Those of us who wanted the ‘Yes’ vote to win should save our criticism for the incompetent running of that campaign.

        It’s this kind of attitude that allows the reactionary and conservative forces in politics to keep on prevailing.

  6. Robert Eve Robert Eve

    Dylan – are to free to run the NO2EU campaign?

    Hope so!

  7. roger roger

    A bit of light relief.
    If you wrote “Yes” in the YES box the vote was a valid vote for Yes
    If you wrote “No” in the NO box the vote was void for uncertainty
    If you wrote “Yes” in the NO box this was a valid vote for No
    If you wrote “No” in the YES box probably the same as the Yes in the No box but not specified by the Electoral Commission
    If you wrote “No” in the YES box and “Yes” in the NO box this was a valid vote for No
    If you wrote “Yes” or “No” anywhere else on the ballot paper this was a valid vote

  8. Joe Henthorn Joe Henthorn

    As much as this article annoyed me, it is entirely true. No2AV won because they were blunt, to the point and unashamedly populist. People on the left in this country seem content to just make do with the moral high ground (They’re lying to you! They’re shutting down the conversation! We’ve got Stephen Fry!), even if that’s not going to be successful in bringing about the change that is genuinely needed.

    The No campaign played dirty, but to be honest, were we expecting anything else? As soon as those ridiculous ‘No2AV or the baby gets it’ posters were released the Yes campaign should have been on the attack, and not been all holier than thou with their ‘let’s get the ASA to stop this’ nonsense. Who was that going to impress? It’s sad that political debate has devolved into a battle of soundbites nowadays, but if we want real democratic reform in this country then we need to adopt some of the political tricks that the right are so annoyingly adept at.

    Do we think that Yes to Fairer Votes might’ve done better if it had run billboards connecting Nick Clegg and his ‘broken promises’ with the broken electoral system that put him there, FPTP? It would have been much more effective than Joanna Lumley cooing at us from the pages of the Guardian, that’s for sure.

  9. So the “No to AV” camp won with the following strategies:

    1. Play the man, not the ball. Focus on the fact that Nick Clegg supports the campaign to win support through negative advertising.

    2. Run false numbers to scare public. There remains little support for the magic “250” figure that even the “No to AV” campaign apparently lost interest in.

    There are few lessons to learn here. One lesson is that a winning side should never debate on substance or have an argument to persuade the public. Fear tactics and negative campaigning (on personalities, not policies) are enough.

    So another mean spirited campaign. It appears that the “No to AV” camp thinks even less of the general public and democratic values than I had thought, if this is any rough “inside” guide…

  10. Brian Brian

    So if you want to get a campaign rolling the answer is simple.

    Create a BIG FAT LIE and repeat it ad infinitum.

    Precisely how low can you go?

  11. Andy Cohen Andy Cohen

    The result would have been far closer had the libdems kept their mouths shut.

    The campaign was always going to be won or lost on the split of Labour voters. Tory’s were always going to vote no, Lib Dems and most of the smaller parties were always going to vote yes.

    Rather than trying to look like a celebrity led campaign, The Yes campaign should have centred on people like Ed Miliband and Alan Johnson. The only Lib Dems that should have been used should have been the only ones that remain relatively popular, i.e. Ashdown and Kennedy.

    Yes should have fought politics with politics, and heavily pressed the message that AV would result in less Tory seats. If they had rammed home this message they’d have got a far greater proportion of the Labour vote.

  12. Chris Sampson Chris Sampson

    So… What do you have to be proud of? The comments above must make you feel really good inside. There is one small consolation…

    You will very soon be forgotten. Your victory is entirely hollow and meaningless. You did not succeed in convincing people to vote NO to AV, you convinced people to vote against Nick Clegg and against the referendum itself. If/when another referendum comes on electoral reform it will most likely not have the worst possible timing, as this one did, and your cheap tactics will be entirely useless.

    Please know that it is you who wasted this referendum and its associated price tag. If you’re happy with your logic then I hope you’re happy with the blood of babies and soldiers on your hands.

    • Just what the doctor orrddee, thankity you!

  13. It would be nice if a debate about the electoral system had actually been about the electoral system, but unfortunately rational, informed debate doesn’t seem to have much chance against misinformation and scaremongering.

    There are good arguments that could have been used against AV – for instance its failure to guarantee monotonicity or the result it might have on the overall composition of the Commons. Unfortunately, the No campaign chose to base their campaign on a character assassination of Clegg and a series of lies (that £250m figure and the claim that AV spells an end to one person, one vote).

    Nonetheless, the referendum has been significant in itself. We must remember that the vote No to AV is precisely that – it is not, except incidentally, an endorsement of FPTP. Many voted against AV despite being dissatisfied with FPTP – because, for instance, they wanted to spite Clegg or favoured full PR and nothing less. Even so, we saw that a sizeable number of people – at least 32% of those who voted – are deeply dissatisfied with FPTP. In some cases, so dissatisfied with FPTP that they would even prefer AV, while many others who rejected AV still dislike FPTP.

  14. Dragonfighter Dragonfighter

    I voted ‘NO’ because I believe in PR and to quote Nick Clegg ‘It is a miserable little compromise” If the “YES” campaign had inspired me to believe that AV would lead to PR I would have voted yes, instead the “YES” campaign information that I saw was patronising and preachy – the only “NO” advertising I saw was the Army armour stuff (and frankly compared with the cost of the Libya war it was about peanuts), so all (to me) the “YES” campaign said was “Vote for us because we are cleverer/richer/more photogenic/progressive; than you are”, consequently you should support us.

    DUH!!! – Insult me and you can guarantee I will actively oppose you, so even though I live in London (and and had no real reason to vote) I voted no.

  15. Wait a second.... Wait a second....

    Wait, you conveniently left out your big launch with some obtuse reference to Papua New Guinea. Who cared about that? At the start, many, many supposed supporters were questioning why they had to vote “No” given the initial sales pitch. Honestly, they weren’t convinced.

    Then the polls broke over a weekend. Was it a result of the politicos taking centre stage or was it that voters sat down and read the apolitical leaflet from the Electoral Commission distributed days before? I think it could have been one or both, but definitely not something attributable to some advertisement strategy.

    I give you credit for self-correcting as the campaign developed, though.The “No” campaign started out very unfocussed but polished up at the end. Interestingly, the “Yes” campaign achieved the exact opposite to that.

  16. Bruce T Brown Bruce T Brown

    In London there were no local elections. The referendum was arguably not influenced by overtly political elections. London generally supported YES.

    The lesson may be not to run referendums at the same time as other elections.

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