I guess it’s about time to squat on the scorched earth of our referendum disaster and pick ghoulishly at the corpse of the Yes to AV campaign. Here’s why I think the AV campaign failed.
Ed Miliband is a weak leader. While he was willing to put his neck out for reform, he utterly failed to take his party with him. Cameron almost silenced the pro-reform Tories (with honourable exceptions), but Miliband couldn’t lead Labour. What this referendum does reveal is that when Ed talks, his party isn’t listening.
His petty refusal to take a podium with Nick Clegg was deep and a self-inflicted wound to the Yes campaign. The No campaign was making the most of the anti-Clegg feeling (which, in my opinion, is nothing more than both left and right being bitter about uppity interlopers in their cosy duopoly). Ed Miliband validated this argument for them, and advertised it. By being so petulant and unstatesmanlike, he was doing the No campaign’s work.
THE ‘PROGRESSIVE CONSPIRACY’
It became obvious the national campaign was dead in the water when they ran a ‘cross-party’ launch with only Labour, lefty Lib Dems, and Greens. Where were Nigel Farage and Andrew Boff? If Darren Johnson, an obscure Green member of the London Assembly, got to speak, why not a prominent Tory member of the London Assembly? Why not the leader of UKIP, a populist right wing party that came second in the 2009 Euro elections? Then Tim Farron and Chris Huhne started talking explicitly in terms of a ‘progressive’ conspiracy. Disaster.
Interestingly, the two most-cheered speakers at the Yes London launch event were Tory-voter Kris Akabusi and the head of Conservative Yes. They were great, passionate speakers. We never heard from them again.
The campaign should have been more inclusive. Unless Yes were utterly, absolutely sure that they could pile up votes from left-leaning voters, we needed something to throw to the country’s conservative majority.
WEAKNESS OF SOCIAL MEDIA
No dominated the air war with a traditional media operation. Yes was a bottom-up campaign, completely dominating the internet and social media. We had homebrew Youtube videos featuring cats and pubs, endless twittering, active and positive Facebook groups.
But social media doesn’t reach out beyond a small number of people of a narrow demographic who are already predisposed to vote for you. It’s not a way of reaching the average voter who, if they even use the internet, aren’t looking at the #yes2av twitter spool.
Social media is a tolerably good way of recruiting and organising volunteers for the ground war. But unless you turn online activity into boots on the ground, it’s more or less meaningless.
YES LOST CONTROL OF THE DEBATE
This was by far the most important failure of the Yes campaign.
A lot of people have been complaining that the Yes messages were weak, including Polly Toynbee today in the Guardian, who wrote that Yes was “insultingly stupid with its call to make MPs work harder”.
I strongly disagree with this. I think that right at the beginning of the campaign, Yes did a good job of formulating and testing the campaign messages. In my experience, they resonated with voters on the doorstep.
But we should have gone harder on the No campaigners.
Dan Falchikov researched the No MPs, and found them to be “some of the greediest, most venal and pathetic MPs to survive the 2010 expenses cull”.
In a campaign that ultimately came down to trust, we needed to get this information out. For a Yes campaign that was intentionally anti-politician- a people’s campaign against the establishment- and working to install a system that if nothing else makes it easy to kick out an unpopular MP, it was a highly relevant attack. It was, in fact, the only effective way to counter the baby-killing soldier-shooting lies of the No campaign.
They fought dirty, yet our gloves didn’t come off. This was no time for Queensbury Rules
As the campaign progressed, the Yes campaign appeared to have no clear communications grid.
Too much time was given to rebutting the No claims. We should have said “this is a lie, you’re not credible”, and moved on.
Instead, Yes went on and on and on about how the costs weren’t £250 million, and how electronic vote counting machines wouldn’t be necessary. Even if people hadn’t heard the No lies, if they heard the Yes rebuttal it would have seemed like a suspiciously specific denial, and they’d suspect it might be true anyway.
The same goes for the BNP claims. Lefties are prone to giving fascists levels of attention that grossly outweigh their seriousness as a political force. Usually I think that’s fine: if Labour want to ship their young activists to Dagenham to fight phantoms, then at least they’re not on the ground in Labour marginals. The BNP are an irrelevance, politically and in the minds of the electorate. So going on and on about Nick Griffin was another suspiciously specific denial, and was a total waste of time and energy.
Once you’ve let the enemy set the terms of the debate, you’ve been sunk.