'The No campaign will win with a healthy but not huge margin'

Written by Why did you come on board with No to AV? on 21 April 2011 in Diary
Head of the No to AV campaign Matthew Elliott discusses the challenges of the referendum, why AV really is complicated and whether he regrets that 'baby poster'

Personally I saw it as a challenge. Obviously, I had set up The TaxPayers' Alliance and Big Brother Watch – third party organisations. Involved in politics but not directly involved in politics. So it was interesting to move from that to something that would have a bigger role in actual party politics and national politics. So a career challenge. But also, of course, the issue itself. I believe in accountable government. What the MPs' expenses scandal taught me was that people are very disillusioned with politics. And what drives that disillusionment is when politicians break manifesto promises and don't do what they promised to do. And you are going to get more of that under AV because there are going to be more hung Parliaments. It's basically having an electoral system that delivers clear government which people then hold to account periodically. So I suppose it's an ideological issue and a policy issue and personal reasons too.

How have you found working on the first national referendum in over 30 years?

It's been quite a challenge. In the sense that when this issue first reared its head after the election, there were quite a few people in the Conservative Party talking about it, particularly backbench Conservative MPs. I don't think at that point anybody thought that the No campaign would consist of basically full Conservative Party support and support from well over half the Labour Party. So stitching together that coalition with union support as well, with support from a variety of non-political actors, was quite a tough challenge. It has involved a lot of diplomacy and team-building but now I think we have a fairly strong campaign. We risked having a rerun of the 1975 referendum when it was basically Enoch Powell and Tony Benn. But actually building up quite a strong coalition for a no vote was quite important.

People often say, 'Why was it that you came out with the patrons first of all? Why did you paint us as a dinosaur campaign?' We had to do it like that because basically all the other Labour MPs wanted to come on board and the unions and the peers, they needed that air cover from having your high quality patrons. That's why we did what we did. Start at the top. High quality Labour and Tory patrons then built in underneath that.

What information did you start with? What email lists did you build from?

Zero. We've been really good in terms of not just importing. The TPA has close onto 50,000 people on its email system. I could have imported all of those. We didn't because that would break all sort of data protection rules so quite firm on that. We started from scratch. Which is good because it forced us to find ways to find entirely new people. We've got quite a clean list now at the No campaign. Also there was a problem of, while the bill was going through Parliament, there was a feeling that that was the main priority for the Conservative Party at the time. Getting the bill through Parliament and fulfilling their pledge to Nick Clegg to have the referendum on the 5 May. It was only really after royal assent that their mind then turned to, 'Right how do we actually win this thing now we've got it?' It's only really been in the past four weeks since royal assent that we've had the full public support and 100 per cent help from CCHQ. Before that, it was very much us on our own which was tough, particularly because we are a very small team.

How are you finding working with the Labour Party?

The Labour Party has been very good in terms of saying it's a completely free vote. There's been a number of times when the general secretary of the Labour Party has clarified that to all members. Labour No to AV has been able to go round to CLPs. One thing I have learnt from this campaign is that the Labour Party seems a lot more democratic than the Conservative Party. Our guys, Jane Kennedy in particular, have gone round all of the CLPs and actually debating these issues with a Yes spokesperson. Then the CLPs, they'll actually vote on what the CLP position is on the issue. They then decide whether or not to work with us on delivering leaflets or taking part in the referendum. So it is actually quite a democratic process. We are winning the majority. Jane says it's up to 80 per cent now we're now winning. So it's really, really high. I think it's because they know it's a free vote and because they want to have a full majority Labour government after the next election. Any idea that they could use some form of proportional representation to build this coalition of the Left, the progressive Left, that's now gone out of the window after the coalition. There's very little trust left in the Lib Dems now. They want that full Labour government.

How do you find managing the different interests of the Conservative and Labour parties?

There is a slight nuance to what both sides can say. It is fair to say that all of us believe in the overriding message. Of course we do. This idea of protecting one person, one vote. That is a key difference we see between FPTP and AV. One has one person one vote. One gives more votes to people who vote for minority parties. So of course we all support that. Of course we were all concerned about the cost of AV as well. I am concerned about the full cost of AV. We are spending £90m on this referendum when there is very little public appetite for it in the first place. But of course that cost is spent, accounted for. It was part of the coalition agreement. So obviously that is not something that the Conservative Party campaign on. They pledged to have that referendum so they have to carry the can for that cost as much as the Lib Dems. But there is a lot of unity in terms of the other costs that we estimate. But also when it comes to the whole condition of the third party in British politics and the role that Nick Clegg would play in future elections, I think we all agree – both Conservative, Labour and No to AV in general – agree that it would be quite damaging if we had a politics where essentially coalition agreements decide a government rather than the voters themselves. Quite how sort of vocally we say it... We’ve talked about President Clegg and King-maker Clegg and this is our way of highlighting the problem of hung Parliaments and the position that Lib Dems would have under AV. That's obviously not something that David Cameron would say so explicitly.  But the underlying message that hung Parliaments produce less accountable government than generally FPTP does is something he'd completely agree with.

Are there many at No to AV that actually prefer a different electoral system to FPTP?

We've got a section of the campaign called No to AV, Yes to PR which is headed up by Lord Owen. I actually respect people who like PR because it's very different system from FPTP. But it is a predictable electoral system. You know what you're going to get. You know that a party's percentage in the polls is going to be translated into seats. It's all quite clear and straightforward. One of the reasons why I dislike AV so much is the unpredictable nature. The fact that you can get these super-majorities. The fact that Blair would have got a majority way over 200 in 1997, or you get hung Parliaments. It's that unpredictability I don't like. So if this was an AV referendum and I had three options, I think I would probably vote FPTP 1, PR 2 and AV 3.

When people use a 'step in the right direction' argument, I say, 'So if it is a step in the right direction, fine, but let's be honest here. This is actually a referendum where we are going to make a step and then in a few years' time consider moving towards PR.' If you are in that position, then some of the accusations that have been thrown at the no campaign about the BNP and what have you – the BNP want PR. They are trying to lash the BNP to the No cause. Well, actually they are in the same camp as the Yes, in a sense, because they both want PR. What we are actually saying is, if you want to have clear leadership from single-party governments, stick with FPTP. Or if you want to have a proportional system, where the BNP would have a bus-load of MPs, as Nick Griffin famously said, then let's have PR. But trying to pretend that we'd actually stick with AV for a long period of time is actually very disingenuous. If we moved on from AV to PR a lot of members of the public would think that they'd been a bit like when it came to the European referendum, they'd voted for something that wasn't actually quite on the table.

Do you regret the baby poster?

No. Because I think the cost of AV is a very legitimate concern in this referendum particularly when we see public services being cut back or tax going up or all this sort of stuff. It forces people to recognise that there are choices that have to be made. I think the Yes campaign if they spent less time going around saying what dirty tricks we were playing – calling us Goebbels and all this sort of stuff – they'd be doing better in the polls. The fact that they call us Nazis all the time actually suggests they are losing the argument. We've had a very positive message from the beginning about the defence of one person, one vote and the strength and the accountability of our current system. And yes, we've done some other supplementary arguments like the cost of AV, like the position that Nick Clegg would have in the future hung Parliaments, about the complexity of AV. We've had a whole series of events that we've run quite strongly. But you need to run strong arguments to get cut through in a referendum. So I don't regret the baby at all.

Tags: Alternative vote, Alternative Vote referendum, Matthew Elliott, Referendums, Voting machines

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