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We need an audit into why the Yes2AV campaign performed so badly

9:02 am - May 20th 2011

by Anthony Barnett    

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At least three big stories are emerging from the debacle of the Yes to AV campaign.

First, that the strategy of its controlling management was strategically dishonest. Second, that it was run with appalling waste and incompetence and that the two main funders (JRRT and the ERS) may suffer from it. Third, that despite this an exceptionally important independent cross-party network of volunteers and activists was “galvanised” by campaign.

This network could seed a genuine movement for democracy, citizenship and political reform – in a country where, since the suffragettes, such change has usually been led from above.

But these activists may need financial support which led me to call for the JRRT to hold a public inquiry into what went wrong and what its role might best be as the main funder of democracy campaigns in the UK. See my post here on that.

My argument also draws on the report published on Liberal Conspiracy by Andy May. I think the JRRT should draw some lessons from the debacle, given it spent and arguably wasted nearly £2 million in a sector where organisations and blogs can flourish with grants of two or three per cent of that amount.

The ‘Yes campaign’ was run from the get-go of Clegg’s appointment of John Sharkey as the Campaign Director as a Libdem operation.

Its aim seem to have been to deliver a result that would support and validate the Coalition and not upset David Cameron. Indeed, the case for an inquiry is reinforced by an account of the appalling way the Sharkey apparently treated the Conservative Yes to AV campaign.

But in practical terms of building what Sunny calls “an infrastructure” that can assist reform, strengthen activists and resist the way Westminster destroys energy, we need to look at the less sexy issues: such as how money should be spent and accounted for in campaigns.

There are, no doubt, many more lessons that can and should be learnt from the fiasco of the Yes campaign.

This will require a full, open and honest public inquiry – which the JRRT should now set in motion. It is the very least that it can do, given the many thousands who donated their time, energy and support and the many millions more across the country who want reform.

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About the author
Anthony Barnett is a regular contributor, and editor of the blog Our Kingdom. Also a founder member of OpenDemocracy and Charter 88. He co-organised the Convention on Modern Liberty.
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Reader comments

1. Eastender

Even if the yes campaign had been brilliantly run the referendum would still have been lost. Whether we like it or not it was the wrong question at the wrong time, largely a result of inexperienced and naive politicians being overcome by the prospect of ministerial cars. The only long term hope is to work at both of the major political parties (sorry to any reading LDs but the chances of the LDs being a significant influence after the end of this parliament is very small) to convince them it is in their own interests to reform the current voting system (bizarrely the party most likely to have gained from AV was not the LDs but the Tories). This will take a long time (though given the result there is plenty of time available before another chance at electoral reform comes round) and needs to be completely divorced from the LDs and their own sectional interests.

Lefty navel gazing isnt going to help any of this, being in the real world might.

the yes campaign leaflets did not make any attempt to explain what av was. some people who were natural supporters of electoral reform voted against it because it wasnt pr but i actually came across people who voted for it because they thought it was pr and vice versa. a lot of people voted no because they didnt understand it. it should be noted that in newzealand when people were given a choice of every major electoral system av came last and additional memberssystem won thats what we have in scotand london and wales already


the yes campaign leaflets did not make any attempt to explain what av was.

To be fair here, to do that would have taken up a lot of space in a leaflet (most of one side at least to do it simply and clearly with illustrations), which would not only make the point for those (like me) who kept pointing out that it was realtively complex, but also effectively give the No campaign an advantage in conveying simple messages.

The audit could profittably look at how to get relatively complex information (and even pure PR systems will look relatively complex to people used to first-past-the-post and multi-member seats at most) across effectively, at least if you want to take the line that Yes lost because it’s position was misrepresented. I would suggest however that, unless we can find an area with low Guardian/Independent-readership (slightly flippant) and high Yes to AV votes, there will be little evidence of what actually works.

How much were Sharkey/Sinclair and other management paid? Add Conservative YES (see above) to this and there are many questions to answer.

FWIW I live in a London borough with a council where the LibDems have entrenched continuous control over two decades and where both the local MPs are LibDems. The vote in the referendum went: 67.4% No to AV and 32.1% Yes, on a local turnout of 38.9%.

In the campaign, I had a leaflet through the letterbox on why I should vote No but neither heard nor read anything from those campaigning in the borough for a Yes vote.

My perception was of an abysmally poor campaign for AV. Even so, I voted Yes, albeit with reservations as I believe this referendum has kicked into the long grass the prospect of better electoral reforms, such as the recommendation of the Jenkins’ commission in 1998 for AV+:

For an independent analysis of the issues, try this brief in The Economist (28April)

For an insight into the quality of the No campaign, try this from the Daily Mail:

Vote No tomorrow to stop Clegg and his cronies destroying democracy in Britain – forever

They have had AV voting in Australia to elect the lower house of their Parliament since 1918. According to the Mail, that means the Australians don’t have a democracy.

@3: I think we’re damned either way there, not addressing it gives out the impression that, actually we think it’s complicated too and would rather try not to bring it up.

I don’t think it was impossible to make the case that AV is simple either. There were a fair few things floating around that made the case for AV in a intuitive but not wonkish way, but the campaign wasn’t leading and there didn’t really seem to be any serious research done on how to get AV across in the kind of simple bullet points that No did (or if there was, it never saw the light of day).

@3: To be fair here, to do that would have taken up a lot of space in a leaflet

The yes campaign should’ve delivered literature to every household in the country, explaining (1) what AV is and (2) some scenarios where it’s better than FPTP. They should have used trials and focus groups to determine what ways of explaining it work best. Ideally they should’ve used a 4 page tabloid newspaper format — at 2p a copy it would’ve cost them £250,000 which was well within their budget.

@1: Even if the yes campaign had been brilliantly run the referendum would still have been lost.

Going back to January, the polls had Yes winning. Defeat was not pre-ordained.

@5 They have a two party system in Australia, therefore AV approximates damn near exactly to FPTP with the option of a Green protest vote for lefty types, and of course the Liberal and National wings of the right-wing party.

That isn’t the case in the UK, so while a yes to AV could be argued to destroy British democracy, it’s not so in Australia.

9. Merrymaker

Electoral reform is dead in the water and will be for a very long time, and the Yes campaign is mainly to blame. The campaign failed to create as mass movement in favour of the change – its public supporters were mainly celebs only one of whom seemed to take an active role. At the local level the organisation was pathetic; even the LibDems seemed more interested in the local elections. Where were the right wing supporters of reform? There were some but they were ignored. Despite the mendacious nature of the No campaign, Mathew Elliot showed how it should be done. I am surprised that Yes got a third of the votes.

@7. It’s impossible to argue AV is better than FPTP in a seat where the candidate first on first preferences wins on the final round. The two systems have the same result so to argue one is better than the other is impossible to make simply.

The only scenario in a single constituency where AV could be argued to be better than FPTP is one where the candidate first on first preferences is Marmite, and where he would have lost to another candidate under AV. But this would have provided tons of fodder for No: “Yes claim it’s a great thing when the one who comes first doesn’t win”.

They could have made that argument more explicitly, because we all know what is meant: “In seats where the Tories win on 40%, Labour Lib Dems and Greens can all swap 2nd preferences and win the seat for one of us” but this would have just been an even more explicit version of the “Stuff democracy or swings of the pendulum. Let’s cement the ‘progressive majority’ and keep the Tories out forever” argument that got put about towards the end of the campaign.

In short, there’s no such examples that could have been used. They had to fall back on Stephen Fry and claiming AV ends expenses scandals.

Perhaps if they’d rejected the poor compromise that was AV, they wouldn’t be kicking themselves now? I parted company with TBP when they threw their weight behind AV. I warned them that they’d lose if they accepted AV. Indeed Cameron offered AV precisely because he knew no one, in their heart of hearts, wanted it. The referendum offered no real choices and Cameron knew that. Time to fight for real PR.

Phil Hunt,

Going back to January, the polls had Yes winning. Defeat was not pre-ordained.

Well, the polls also had very large numbers of Don’t Knows, who went to No in the main. I think the question was could AV ever really convince Don’t Knows? For those of you who want electoral reform, that is the key issue – the early yeses and noes are already pretty well fixed, but can you convince the Don’t Knows that they need to support change.

If nothing else, the referendum showed that as the key issue pretty well…

Liberal Vision have a good write-up of what went wrong – the Yes campaign was aimed at guardian readers and very few others.

Why wasn’t Nigel Farage used more? He had the ability to really attack the Tories on this issue and appeal to a lot of people on the right who are forced to vote Tory by the system, where they’d rather vote UKIP.

Of course Ed Miliband also deserves a huge amount of blame – AV was a Labour manifesto commitment and they reneged on it, just to score some cheap points against Clegg.

The same thing will happen on Lords reform – a Labour commitment for decades suddenly being opposed by the People’s Party because Clegg is doing something positive.

In decades time, when Labour can never form a majority again due to the rise of Welsh/Scots national parties, and electoral reform is needed more than ever, new members of Labour will ask “who’s Nick Clegg”

14. Political_Animal

Why it performed so badly??? Because AV is a poor system and the public saw through the sham of a compromise that brought it to the fore.

No need for an audit. Just look at the size of the defeat and realise that AV was a poor option to present to the British public.

15. Watchman


Of course Ed Miliband also deserves a huge amount of blame – AV was a Labour manifesto commitment and they reneged on it, just to score some cheap points against Clegg.

That would be the same Ed Milliband that put himself at the forefront of the Yes to AV campaign, and whose party had big posters telling people to vote Yes and Labour (I can’t help but wonder if those hit Labour’s votes…)?

@8: “That isn’t the case in the UK, so while a yes to AV could be argued to destroy British democracy, it’s not so in Australia.”

That’s garbage IMO. Most analysts agree that introducing AV wouldn’t make a great deal of difference although candidates would probably try harder to appeal to a wider spread of their local electorates and electors would have more confidence that their elected MPs had wider support in their constituencies. The brief in The Economist linked @5 show just how unrepresentative Parliaments are with the FPTP electoral system:

“In the 2010 general election, one Lib Dem MP was elected for every 120,000 Lib Dem votes, one Tory MP for every 35,000 Conservative votes and one Labour MP for every 33,400 votes for that party.”

As I mentioned @5, I would prefer AV+, which would introduce a form of proportional representation. I have by me the report on electoral reform of the Hansard Society from June 1976, under the chairmanship of Lord Blake, a distinguished academic historian, the author of a standard biography of Disraeli and a declared supporter of the Conservative Party.

The gist of the recommendation was that Britain should adopt an electoral system similar to that of West Germany in which voters at general elections vote for a candidate in single-member constituencies and also, separately, for a party.

The constituency candidates for half the seats in the Bundestag are elected on the FPTP system. The party vote is then applied to take candidates from party lists (subject to a minimum threshhold vote to keep out lunatic fringe candidiates) until the eventual composition of the Bundestag reflects the balance of party preference votes. The outcome in practice has almost always been a coalition government.

17. Margin4error

Every time one of these “why did we lose” articles is posted – I feel the need to say that the AV vote lost because the formation of a right wing coalition crippled a groundswell of left wing support.

Views on reform align closely with political self interest.

Lib Dems like reform because it might get them more seats.
Tories dislike reform because it might get them fewer seats.
Labour are ambiguous as it might get them fewer seats, but might also deliver more left wing governments because the only likely coalitions are left wing.

And then a bunch of ideology is used to dress that up (proportion = democracy or strong government is good government or whatever).

Then a right wing coalition formed. And that undermined support for reform that had grown among pragmatic lefties who want more left wing governments through coalition.

While I listed that as a positive for Labour – it is worth noting that it is also a positive for a large number of fairly un-aligned lefties. (It all goes wider than just a party’s consistent voters.)

So the yes vote had an impossible task. It could either try to shore up left-leaning support in the face of utterly humiliating evidence that reform would not innevitably benefit the left.

Or it could try to build new support among the right, who might now think reform could be OK after all.

In reality neither was a winning strategy. Building support on the right is the strategy needed now. IIt will take decades but it is the only winning direction. The Yes vote thus chose the humiliating option of trying to keep the left on side – and innevitably failed.

18. Anthony Barnett

Tks everyone: I’m not asking for “navel gazing” or saying – see my longer post – that AV could have been won. You can win with pride, integrity intact, a fight the next battle better. Or you can lose badly, waste valuable resources and leave people angry and feeling worse than let down. So what matters here is the future not the past. How do we build out of the ashes? This should be the aim of an inquiry, to take evidence and draw practical lessons.

19. Margin4error


I should add, and I apologise for not saying so before, that your article is a good one and the campaign itself should lead to some lessons about running cross-party campaigns.

And for what it is worth – from the rather odd possition of wanting reform but opposing the yes vote – I would suggest a major problem was the arrogance and spitefulness of campaigners and supporters of the yes vote towards left wingers voting no.

To be told repeatedly that as a left winger who was voting no (I felt it was a rubbish reform, and also that a no vote might save the NHS) that I was just petty, spiteful, stupid, naeve, and a whole host of other typical Lib-Dem-campaigner-attitude insults – only made me less inclined to reconsider my decision. Even at the ballot box as I questioned what I was about to do and wavered somewhat, my resolve was hardened by the appalling attitude of so many yes campaigners.

The lack of respect for an alternative view – and the spitefulness of many yes campaigners may have been born out of desperation at the lost cause – and maybe also out of their defensiveness as lib dems since being unmasked as principle-free moral-high-grounders.

But until the rather nasty side is purged from the campaign for reform – many of us labour people simply won’t want to touch it, don’t want to be associated with it, and would rather share a drink at the end of a day pounding the streets with tory campaigners.

20. Roger Mexico

When I tried to contact the Yes campaign last autumn and found a snazzy website but with no contact e-mail, I thought ‘this won’t end well’ and much of the above (and Andy May’s excellent piece) isn’t surprising. There are obviously wider discussions to be had about the role of the ‘professionals’ in the culture of political campaigning. But one area that hasn’t been discussed yet is what we can learn about the campaign from polling data. A lot of the comments above seem to make assumptions about the reasons for AV’s failure without looking at what reasons the voters actually gave.

There is certainly a lot of polling from a variety of pollsters, but to start with, look at YouGov, whose increased regularity of polling over the last year (with increasingly large samples) enables us to look at movement in public opinion in a way that has never been possible in Britain before.

Two of their polls reward immediate attention. They carried out an effectively eve of poll study which asked not just about people would vote, but also what advantages they saw in their preferred system, how the campaign had affected them, what contact had been made and so on.

They also (another innovation) did a polling day survey for people to fill in after voting. Again there are questions on why people voted the way they did.

One warning that has to be applied to these polls is that ironically they weren’t fantastically accurate about the referendum result. The eve of election gave Yes 41% No 59% and the polling day Yes 38% No 62% as opposed to an actual result of Yes 32% No 68%.

I suspect this is because those who sign up to consumer panels such as YouGov tend to be more opinionated and involved (even if it is about giving their opinions on soft drinks) so they may be more open to new things. They are certainly more likely to vote – 79% said they did as opposed to a general turnout of 42%. So you have to remember that there is also a hinterland of small ‘c’ conservative apathy out there as well. Most of them won’t vote, but those that do will be more likely for the status quo.

Several points stand out immediately from the data. 26% voted by post, so it’s no use just having your campaign peak in the last few days. The figure changes little with age so you’re not looking just at your traditional postal voters either. However 27% claim to have made their mind up in the last week and they only voted 51% No, so the Yes campaign could have has some effect.

Those voting against did so overwhelmingly because they saw the current system as ‘simple’ and ‘tried -and-tested’. Despite all the partisan and political reasons suggested these came top. In addition 14% of No voters said they want to change to Proportional Representation and another 14% weren’t sure.

The No campaign was clearly more effective in its campaigning – even Yes voters had the two campaigns roughly equal – and in getting leaflets out. However 24% of those voting didn’t notice the No campaign and 29% the Yes and a further 31% and 34% didn’t see enough to make an impression. Not everyone spends all their time thinking about politics, but still this is hardly galvanising the nation.

Even the claims that people were choosing on the basis of Party leaders looks rather thin. 34% of people can’t have been voting against Nick Clegg because they didn’t know which side he was on. 33% said the same about Cameron and 49% about Miliband. In each case the proportions among Yes and No voters were almost identical. Even their own Party supporters weren’t much more knowledgeable – 20% of Tories, 24% of Lib Dems and 40% of Labour supporters didn’t know where their Party leader stood.

I shan’t give the figures for the Yes and No campaigns’ ‘celebrities’ on the grounds of pity.

There’s a lot more information to be gleaned both from these polls and from others in the prolonged run up to the referendum. It might also be useful to look at those areas that did vote ‘Yes’ to see why they were different. But if we are going to draw lessons about what went wrong and future campaigning, it would be well to start with some facts.

21. Gary Regis

It was a complete farce, I work in a call centre, and offered my time and that of over 20 work mates who were really up of giving our time and energy on the phones, for free, despite two emails and a phone call, we were never used, in fact I found it rather rude the they could not be bothers to even get back to me, it like they did not want to win, just look at the flyers…

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    We need an audit into why the Yes2AV campaign performed so badly

  2. The Dragon Fairy

    RT @libcon: We need an audit into why the Yes2AV campaign performed so badly

  3. Sunder Katwala

    RT @libcon: We need an audit into why the Yes2AV campaign performed so badly

  4. Helen Parker

    RT @libcon: We need an audit into why the Yes2AV campaign performed so badly

  5. Chris Butler

    RT @libcon: We need an audit into why Yes2AV campaign performed so badly <case badly made & not STV which was promised

  6. Ian McKenzie

    @libcon 1. As @AnthonyBarnett says, it was a Liberal front as #No2AV said all along and were called liars for it.

  7. Ian McKenzie

    @libcon 3. Almost no-one on #Yes2AV wanted AV. They mostly wanted PR. Insincerity will out; electorate aren't fools.

  8. David Turner

    We need an audit into why the Yes2AV campaign performed so badly …

  9. Jackart

    Questions to which the answer is "because it was a fucking silly idea". @sunny_hundal

  10. Demands for Ken Clarke’s head over rape comments, Cameron pushes NHS reforms and an elected chamber for the Lords?: round up of political blogs for 14 May – 20 May | British Politics and Policy at LSE

    […] David Herdson at ponders if the Liberal Democrats made the wrong call by pushing for the referendum as Anthony Barnett at Liberal Conspiracy picks up on the lessons emerging from the “debacle” of the Yes to AV campaign. […]

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