On 13 May 2010, a few days after the news that the new coalition agreement contained a commitment to holding a referendum on the Alternative Vote system, pollsters ComRes reported that an astounding 59 per cent of people would vote Yes to switch to AV. Paradigms shifted, preconceptions lay in tatters. Was voting reform – something previously dismissed as the concern only of a liberal intellectual elite in North London dining rooms and the scruffy, megaphoned 'purple people' making a din in Smith Square – actually a mass issue?
Cut forward little under a year and the reverse is equally astounding. The Yes campaign and the Alternative Vote system have taken such a hit that last week’s result has morphed from a thumping referendum victory to a stomping mandate for the first past the post system. Where did it all go so wrong...?
Labour, dinosaurs and the Westminster village
The Yes campaign loved Twitter. They used it to rally their troops, push out messages and, more often than not, throw colourful invective at anyone connected to No to AV. On 25 November, as I was drafting a press release announcing Margaret Beckett as President of the campaign, I tweeted to my 20-odd followers that we had some big news coming tomorrow. In response, a pleasant young Yes-man dismissed me as a "Tory, TPA dinosaur, just like your campaign". A day later I sent him a twitpicof the front of The Guardian: "Labour big beasts line up to stop voting change". His response this time: "So? Still Tory, still TPA, but now Labour dinosaurs."
Oops. Dismiss me by all means, dismiss the No campaign if you will. But underestimate Margaret Beckett, John Reid, David Blunkett and John Prescott at your peril. Trouble is the eager little Yes twitterer might as well have been the comms director for their campaign. The following evening the purple-shirted preacher himself, Jonathan Bartley, sat opposite the former Labour foreign secretary on Newsnight and described her as a "dinosaur propping up the status quo". This diatribe directed at politicians would go on to set the tone for the Yes camp’s messaging, but it actually belied a more critical error.
The Yes campaign thought that they could make this contest the old versus the young, the ‘progressives’ versus the conservatives. Fine if the referendum wasn’t being held on the same day as local elections, but really for the strategy to work they had to get over half of Labour voters – a long way over half – and Labour voters just aren’t as so-called ‘progressive’ as the Yes campaign, Left Foot Forward, the IFS and most of the Westminster Village actually think. They are more Prescott than Purnell, more Reid than Umunna. Just take a look at the referendum result in Sunderland – a place where you’d need to swing a very large stick to hit anyone with a blue rosette – 75% of people voted ‘no’.
Too little, too late
Instead of dismissing the Labour big beasts as dinosaurs, the Yes campaign should have begged, stole and borrowed any means possible to get Ed Miliband and the Labour leadership to three-line whip their MPs’ support for Yes. Instead, with the air cover of Beckett and Prescott, the tenacious former Labour MPs Joan Ryan and Jane Kennedy set about convincing their former colleagues, and a month later the No campaign released the names of over 100 Labour MPs voting No, with many more Labour constituency parties signed-up to deliver leaflets.
Once the Conservative Party’s campaigns team was turned on and they added No to AV messaging to their red lines, the referendum contest was always set to become a fight for the Labour vote. At the No campaign we understood this from the start and weathered the insults thrown at us when we released the names of senior politicians, knowing how important those names would become when the Labour vote became critical. In the final four weeks, just as the Yes campaign woke up to the Labour imperative by plonking Mandelson on the airwaves and Cameron and Osborne on their posters, Labour No to AV went on tour. Day after day we travelled Scotland, the North East, North West, Yorkshire and Wales, accompanied by people like John Prescott, Tommy McAvoy and Ann Clwyd, who turned up in their natural constituencies, said AV would be bad for Labour so vote No, and the Labour voters said ‘ok’.
Now it may be that the Alternative Vote was doomed from the start. Probably unsurprisingly, I consider it the very definition of a miserable little compromise and think that once people had taken a good look at AV, they were going to reject it. But many a campaign has been won or lost regardless of the idea being proposed. I have already taken a look at where I believe the AV media campaign was won and lost (see here). However, if you want a place where the politics of the campaign were won and lost, you need look no further than those hazy days of late November, when Yes believed they could win the referendum without politicians. It’s fair to say they only realised the importance of the Labour vote, far, far too late.
Dylan Sharpe was head of press for No to AV. You can find him on Twitter at @dylsharpe