Brent is hosting a debate on the alternative vote and the town hall is packed. Sadly, the masses are not here for an exchange on the merits of AV – they’ve turned up for a planning meeting next door.
In a smaller room, beside the main chamber, some 35 people gather to hear opposing views on the upcoming referendum on 5 May. But it isn’t the fierce debate many have been hoping for because Conservative MP Sam Gyimah is the only speaker present, and he is representing No to AV.
“Well, you’ve got just me,” Gyimah chuckles. “I’m conscious there’s no one from the Yes side here but I’m hoping someone in the audience might be able to contribute or step up to the breach.” It’s left to the audience to defend the other side of the argument.
When I ask the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign why they didn’t send someone to Brent that evening, they claim never to have been invited. “It’s happening across the country,” says a press officer. “The No campaign organise ‘debates’ but don’t tell the Yes campaign, or leave it to the last minute, and then the No campaign puts about in the media that the Yes campaign didn’t and wouldn’t attend.”
No to AV deny this and offer to show me the invitation they sent. Whatever the truth, the only people to lose out are the voters of Brent.
A couple of weeks later, I’m at a Yes ‘mega-phonebank’ event in the Electoral Reform Society’s Southwark HQ. The building is more youth club than political office. Five floors of earnest (mostly young) volunteers sit among cardboard boxes and distressed sofas, eating pizza and drinking beer with mobile phones glued to their ears. “I-am-calling-from-Yes-to-Fairer-Votes-about-the-upcoming-referendum-and-I-would-really-appreciate-your-view,” rattles one young chap, eyeing up a pizza box.
Jack Stenner is the organiser for the event. He says that Yes has 50 phonebanks across the country, each running six days a week manned by a full-time member of staff. The team is also keen to tell me that they are broadcasting the evening live on ‘Ustream’, so phonebankers from other parts of the country can feel part of the action (although there is a technical hitch and it is quietly dropped from the evening’s agenda).
The big excitement of the night is that Honor Blackman has turned up to gee the troops. With Pussy Galore propping up the Yes campaign, who could possibly say that AV isn’t sexy? However, well into her 80s, her allure is probably wasted on the teenagers present.
She is a lifelong Liberal and one of a host of celebrity advocates for the Yes campaign, including Tony Robinson and Eddie Izzard. “I have been disenfranchised all my voting life,” she says. “One does get fed up with the fact that one never gets to speak in one’s own country. The politicians are so smug about their secure seats and some don’t work hard enough.”
Head of the Lib Dem Yes campaign Tim Farron sums it up: “If you’re a lazy MP who doesn’t want to do any work, then vote No. If you’re part of the establishment and don’t like change, vote No. Other than that I can’t think of any reason to do so.”
Despite coming from the mouth of a former Bond Girl (and Tim Farron), it’s an argument that infuriates some on the No team. Press officer Dylan Sharpe feels it is wrong for the Yes campaign to use MPs’ expenses to promote the alternative vote. “They are dredging up the expenses scandal and trying to exploit it for their own benefit,” he says. “It’s just not true. Most MPs work their butts off.”
John Greenshields, a Labour No to AV agent and national campaigns organiser, believes that despite the enthusiasm of the Yes camp, they have the wrong messaging. “The Yes campaign’s tactics have been to take a leaf out of the Obama campaign and play the change, hopey, happy-clappy-smiley thing but without actually explaining anything. We’re not against change, but look at what you’re changing to.”
Yes campaign director Katie Ghose describes ‘the happy-clappy-smiley thing’ slightly differently, showing more enthusiasm for AV than a Blue Peter audition tape. “We’re working on a grassroots campaign on an unprecedented scale,” she gushes. “The argument boils down to: do you want things to carry on as they are, or do you want a different way of doing politics?”
After the interview, Ghose and I head off to meet a team of Yes volunteers. The only problem is they are not there. For 10 painful minutes, it looks as though the grassroots decided to take a day off. Ghose looks visibly relieved as a group of six T-shirted leafleters troop towards us. It’s a busy, sunny day on Oxford Street, outside Westminster University. It should be the perfect place to canvass. Unfortunately, the public interest doesn’t match the temperature. Just under half the passing trade takes a leaflet, and barely anyone stops to ask a question.
A couple of volunteers are wearing ‘Labour Yes’ rather than ‘Yes to Fairer Votes’ T-shirts. Why? I ask. Surely you want to reach the widest section of the public possible despite their political views? “We want to show that Labour support on the Yes campaign is strong,” one replies.
Their sartorial choice does not go unnoticed by a few members of the public. “Can one of you go over there?” asks one Labour volunteer to another non-party affiliated volunteer, “We’re getting some anti-Labour stick.”
It’s a touchy subject. Over half of the Parliamentary Labour Party and a majority of Labour peers are supporting No to AV. Ben Bradshaw, head of the Labour Yes campaign, maintains that the split over AV has been “very civilised”. “It’s not like the referendum on Europe that we had in the 1970s that was so divisive. People agree to disagree. I’m very pleased virtually all of the shadow cabinet, certainly all the big beasts of the shadow cabinet, are on the Yes campaign,” he says, pointedly. “Most Labour MPs are focusing on the local elections anyway. My regret is that the coalition decided to have the referendum on the same day as the local elections but that’s where we are.”
We are meant to be meeting in the bar of the Dorchester Hotel (not very grassroots), but Bradshaw is ill so he phones me from his sickbed. “I’ve always courted electoral reform,” he says. “I’ve always felt that FPTP was the worst of all systems. I am not going to pretend that electoral reform is an issue that gets the hearts racing for the vast majority of the British people but there is a very clear feeling among the British people that our politics doesn’t work and our electoral system is broken.”
Yet the No camp point out that AV has not always been his system of choice. In the New Statesman in 2009, Bradshaw was quoted as saying: “If one of the reasons that we want reform is to rebuild public trust and confidence in politics, make MPs more accountable, give more power to people and establish a political and parliamentary system that more reflects the will of the public, then AV doesn’t deliver that.”
On the other side of the fence, Joan Ryan is heading up No to AV for Labour. She’s been “incredibly encouraged” that so many within the party came out against AV so quickly. “Even the shadow cabinet,” she says, “And that’s difficult when your leader takes a different position. Party loyalty runs deep.”
Matthew Elliott, her Conservative opposite number, believes that tensions among Tory No to AV-ers are just as complex as Labour Party splits. He says that some Conservatives have not been as explicit as they might have been about AV because they are in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. “When we talked about President Clegg and king-maker Clegg, this is our way of highlighting the problem of hung Parliaments and the position that Lib Dems would have under AV,” he says. “That’s obviously not something that David Cameron would say so explicitly.”
Tim Farron suggests he knows of six Conservative MPs who will vote Yes, although they will not all come out for it publicly. He takes the opposite view to Elliott on David Cameron’s participation in the debate. “My take on Cameron is that actually he’s a reformer,” he says. “He’s being advised by quite a lot of young fogeys and I don’t think he really wants to go down in history as the man who tied us to a medieval voting system [FPTP].”
Both sides agree that the real campaign is only just starting to gain traction (with about 25 days to go). Yes and No have accused each other of lying to gain public support and this bickering has dominated early coverage of the referendum. Yet neither side seems to regret the negative elements of their campaigns so far.
The Yes camp sought to capitalise on the fear of extremism by putting Nick Griffin’s face on a poster next to the phrase: “Say No to the BNP. Vote Yes on 5 May.” And a two-page advert in the Birmingham Mail, paid for by No to AV, claimed that a sick baby “needs a new cardiac facility NOT an alternative voting system” – a dig at the cost of AV, which No estimates at £250m.
Head of No to AV Matthew Elliott, formerly of The TaxPayers’ Alliance, says that he does not regret the ‘baby poster’. “The cost of AV is a very legitimate concern in this referendum particularly when we see public services being cut or tax going up. If the Yes campaign spent less time accusing us of playing dirty tricks, they’d be doing better in the polls. You need to run strong arguments to cut through in a referendum, so I don’t regret the baby at all.”
Most on the Yes campaign also maintain that putting the face of Nick Griffin on national literature helped to get their point across. Head of the Labour Yes campaign Ben Bradshaw says that it was necessary to counter the argument that AV helps extremists. “The response from Yes had to be direct,” adds Yes supporter and veteran campaigner Neil Kinnock.
“Both sides have just been desperate to try and cut through,” one campaigner puts it. “Particularly in the early days, when people weren’t paying much attention.”
“Calm down,” quips another. “It’s only a referendum.”
Even Kinnock admits that this referendum is “low key” and therefore harder to get attention for. “The only referendum I’ve ever enjoyed was on Welsh devolution in 1979,” he reminisces. “I led the No campaign and we had a hell of a good time. It was wonderful. But the 1975 common market referendum campaign was a quite nasty business.” He expresses no such strong emotions on AV.
The referendum campaign has been subdued so far. Despite the best attempts of Yes and No to tack themselves to popular sentiment, turnout is estimated to be as low as 15 per cent in some parts of the country. Both camps have sought to take their messages away from Westminster, with all its politicking and party splits. But it was the politicking that gave us the referendum in the first place – in those five days last May.
And the repercussions of a Yes or No result will go way beyond the type of electoral system we use. We will either see Cameronism become the norm, with those on the right of the party increasingly isolated from the new consensus politics, or the Lib Dems gambling away their only hope for electoral success for a generation. The referendum might make you shrug, but the consequences could make you shudder.
Back on Oxford Street, I watch as a Yes to AV volunteer hands a flyer to a scruffy man in shorts and sunglasses. “I’m already voting No,” the man grunts.
“Why?” enquires the Yes to AV bod.
The man pauses and removes a packet of Tesco Value raisins from his pocket. He starts throwing them to a nearby pigeon.
“Why?” the man muses. “Why?” he repeats, throwing the dried fruit with increasing force. “Can you understand the consequences? Can you understand interpersonal relationships? Can you know what is known? Can you know what is unknown?…”
The Yes bod backs away and starts flyering elsewhere. Oxford Street ignores the man. The pigeon ignores the raisins. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.