Six months from the AV referendum, how are the campaigns shaping up?

The Yes to fairer votes site launches this week. In contrast to the dull oppressive shades of the No campaign’s site, it is clear, bright and colourful, and focuses on the grassroots nature of the campaign with ways in which people can get involved. There is now a network of determined activists across the country that has grown steadily since the extraordinary outpouring of energy during the purple “fair votes” protests back in May.

With exactly six months to go until the proposed referendum on AV, Guy Aitchison, a blogger and political activist who is a contributing editor at openDemocracy.net and a volunteer with Take Back Parliament, looks at how the opposing campaigns are shaping up

The early announcement that Matthew Elliott, head of the radical right-wing group The TaxPayers’ Alliance, would be heading the “No” campaign, has led most mainstream commentators to the lazy assumption that the opponents of reform are far ahead in terms of strategy and organisation. Elliott, of course, enjoys a fearsome reputation for his success in getting the low-tax, anti-state message favoured by the group’s wealthy backers into the media, and the TPA can justifiably boast of their influence over Tory policy.

But this referendum isn’t going to be won or lost in the column inches of the Daily Mail, much less the dining rooms of Notting Hill. Come May 5th, it’ll be the people who decide whether they want change – and there are many hundreds who are already mobilising to achieve it.

This bonfire weekend, the contrast between the two campaigns couldn’t be starker. The No campaign has drawn on the resources of its wealthy backers – people who have most to gain from the status quo – to fund a new video and a series of online ads designed to sow anger and confusion.

The video asks what are the “burning issues” for you this bonfire weekend, before pointing out that “cuts”, “jobs”, “schools” and “hospitals” are being ignored for a referendum on the Alternative Vote. It is striking how there is zero discussion of the issues raised by electoral reform in the video. Instead, the focus is solely on the alleged cost of the referendum.

This, then, is how the No campaign will be playing it. With easy populist slogans, designed to spread confusion and exploit popular anger at the cuts. The irony, of course, is that the message comes from a mixture of Tories and TPA luminaries, people who have done more than anyone else to further the government’s cuts agenda. And make no mistake, they take the very opposite view of the cuts to the one implied by this video. They know that they have every reason to fear democracy.

As a researcher at the fellow right-wing think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), put it in a moment of remarkable candour, AV is “not a good way to elect Members of Parliament who will support radical free-market economic reforms”, since this system requires politicians to build a broad base of support and attract second and third preferences and this is likely to disadvantage free marketeers whose views enjoy limited popularity.

Whilst the No campaign remains fixated by pushing its negative agenda into the Westminster media, the Yes campaign has been quietly putting in place an experienced team, with a mixture of Liberal Democrats, Labour, and non-aligned figures in senior positions, including John Sharkey, formerly of Saatchi and Saatchi, Paul Sinclair, a former advisor to Gordon Brown, and Katie Ghose, the new director of the Electoral Reform Society.

The Yes to fairer votes site launches this week. In contrast to the dull oppressive shades of the No campaign’s site, it is clear, bright and colourful, and focuses on the grassroots nature of the campaign with ways in which people can get involved. There is now a network of determined activists across the country that has grown steadily since the extraordinary outpouring of energy during the purple “fair votes” protests back in May.

They are ready to take the fight for reform to the country, turning every town, street and doorstep purple. This weekend more than 50 fairer votes launch events are taking place in communities from Watford, to Manchester, to Aberdeen, all organised by local Yes campaign volunteers. You can find one in your area using the Take Back Parliament site, and perhaps pop down and enjoy some firework as well.

It’s the difference between an authentic grassroots mobilisation and pseudo-radical astro-turfing designed to preserve the status quo. With six months to go, the different approaches of the two campaigns are very much on display.

22 Responses to “Six months from the AV referendum, how are the campaigns shaping up?”

  1. Celyn

    RT @leftfootfwd: Six months from the AV referendum, how are the campaigns shaping up? http://bit.ly/cyF1oV by @GuyAitchison #YesinMay

  2. GuyAitchison

    Six months from the AV referendum, how are the campaigns shaping up? – new post by me @leftfootfwd http://bit.ly/cyF1oV #yesinmay

  3. YES! To Fairer Votes

    RT @GuyAitchison: Six months from the AV referendum, how are the campaigns shaping up? @leftfootfwd http://bit.ly/cyF1oV #yesinmay

  4. Ben Donnelly

    RT @YesInMay: RT @GuyAitchison: Six months from the AV referendum, how are the campaigns shaping up? @leftfootfwd http://bit.ly/cyF1oV # …

  5. GuyAitchison

    @georgeeaton this may be of interest before you write off Yes campaign http://bit.ly/cyF1oV

  6. George Gabriel

    RT @YesInMay: RT @GuyAitchison: Six months from the AV referendum, how are the campaigns shaping up? @leftfootfwd http://bit.ly/cyF1oV # …

  7. Richard

    Hi Guy,
    Is there any concern that the referendum will be caught up in the politics of the day and will not be considered on its merits?

    By the time of the referendum, the cuts will have started to bite, and the animus directed towards to the Lib Dems, especially on the left, will be strong. Many Labour people, who in other circumstances would be pro-reform may want to give Clegg and the Lib Dems a political bloody nose. I know a number of progressives who are saying they are voting no, because that “bastard” Clegg is supporting yes.

    For this to pass, there will need to be some peace made between Labour and the Lib Dems. I have a feeling that the antagonism between them and their supporters will be so strong, it will contaminate this effort.

  8. Stuart

    As an AV supporter I have to say that the campaign has unfortunately been lame so far. Why has it taken 6 months to put a website up? (And there’s no reason it couldn’t have been in place *before* the general election.) No doubt it’s not easy to get messages through to an apathetic media. But at the moment there isn’t even a place that lazy journalists can go to for the pro-AV argument. Instead we get repeated emails and blog posts promising that the campaign really is starting and there’s no need to write it off. Stop being defensive about the campaign and start campaigning!

    There are a number of myths and half-truths that have already become almost accepted as fact in the media, including…
    1. it isn’t really proportional and is worse than the old system
    2. the fact that boundary changes are being smuggled into the same piece of legislation means that Labour supporters shouldn’t support it
    3. it is a dismal compromise that is no one’s first choice

    These need to be tackled urgently, stressing that while it might not be the first choice, it is a clear improvement on the present system. Going on about the lack of proportionality misses the point; it is a good system because it (mostly) removes the need to vote tactically and reflects voters’ full range of preferences (their full ranking of the candidates) rather than only their first choice.

    The boundary changes are unfortunate for the campaign, to say the least – but are not as unfair as they are being made out to be. It will remain the case that Labour needs fewer votes to get elected than either of the other parties. We shouldn’t fall for this deliberate attempt by the Tories to sabotage left-wing support for AV.

  9. Andrew Bradley

    Time for the @yesinmay campaign for fairer votes in Britain to shout louder – the current, corrupt system cannot stay! http://bit.ly/bYuoyK

  10. Andrew Bradley

    Time for the @YesInMay campaign for fairer votes in Britain to shout louder – the current, corrupt system cannot stay! http://bit.ly/bYuoyK

  11. Mili

    Compare the meerkat^H^H^H^Hcampaign: http://tinyurl.com/3367szk

  12. Guy Aitchison

    Thanks for the comments.

    @ Richard, there is concern about the date, yes, but it’s mainly about the fact that devolved and local elections are happening on the same day and that this may confuse the issues. Andy Burnham has been warning that Labour won’t invest any effort in campaigning for a Yes because it will already be so stretched, see:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/nov/05/labour-will-not-campign-alternative-vote

    Personally, although there is clearly an issue here, I think fears that the elections will be over-shadowed are being over-played, partly for political point scoring. I think voters will be able to separate out the different principles at stake in the different votes. That said, I think you’re definitely right to say that cuts will be a big issue come May. It’s striking how the No campaign are trying to go with the anti-cuts message early, as I say in my post, though the only grounds they have to do it on is the cost of the referendum and it is especially audacious coming from the TPA/Tory hardcore.

    There is, I would argue, a progressive anti-Tory majority in this country and neoliberal politics enjoy very little popular support. AV, which requires parties and candidates to build support, is the best way of opposing deep cuts with no mandate. Thatcher would not have enjoyed such crushing majorities under AV – non-Tory voters would have been able to gang up on Tory candidates across the country. So I hope that Labour voters resist the temptation to give the Lib Dems a good kicking come May. That would be the worst kind of short-term politics, and it won’t bring down the Coalition either. If anything, it’ll bind the Lib Dems to the Tories for dear life. If, on the other hand, Labour go for it and help deliver the referendum, the Lib Dems will be extremely grateful and some kind of Lib-Lab pact is much more likely. I hope that this is the strategy Ed Miliband adopts.

  13. Guy Aitchison

    @ Stuart It’s still six months to go until the referendum and the legislation hasn’t even gone through Parliament yet, so it would have been a bit presumptuous to put anything up back in May. Until now, most of the organising was being done by Take Back Parliament, Unlock Democracy the Electoral Reform Society and other democracy organisations, and these have now come together under a single campaign. It’s not like nothing has been happening! Note that the No campaign doesn’t have its full website up yet. And, don’t worry, we have started campaigning! I was on a street stall today in Camden and there are many more stalls, leaflet deliveries and public meeting going on this weekend, and will be until May. It’s not being defensive, it’s just letting you know what’s happening and seeking to challenge a lazy, TPA-fawning media narrative before it becomes established. I agree the website could do with more content and myth-busting sections etc and I’ve been assured that this stuff will be added in the coming days and weeks.

  14. Chas

    “The No campaign has drawn on the resources of its wealthy backers – people who have most to gain from the status quo – to fund a new video”

    Is this your idea of a joke? I followed your link to the “video”, which is simply 30 seconds of animated text, and must have taken an average 18 year old about 3 minutes to put together at a total cost of 47p. It does not sow “anger and confusion”, but rightly points out that AV is not a burning issue. As you well know, most people do not give a stuff about AV and the clear majority of those who do are opposed to it. Your article sows “anger and confusion” in me, because it is a mixture of lies and rubbish.

  15. Aaron Peters

    RT @leftfootfwd: Six months from the AV referendum, how are the campaigns shaping up? http://bit.ly/9IMg2Z

  16. Tom Round

    “Not a burning issue” may be a good argument for not holding a referendum at all. It is a silly argument when a referendum has been called and set in motion, even if you think the issue is second-order. Spending fifty million pounds for a referendum on whether Jedward’s music shall be banned from all radio broadcasts might be a waste of money, but once it’s been called, you may as well vote on it if you have any opinion at all on the matter.

    Not that I’m saying a referendum on the electoral system is a waste of time, money and attention. And, of course, clearly, the anti-AV people don’t either, given the vehemence with which they’re calling calling for a “no” vote. Does anyone seriously think that if the onus were reversed – if Cameron and Clegg had put through an Act that said, eg, “On 1 May 2013 the Commons electoral system shall be changed to AV, unless before that time 5% of voters sign petition objecting, in which case a referendum must be held” – can anyone seriously imagine the City, the Tories and the other AV opponents refusing to sign such a petition on the grounds that a referendum on the electoral system would be a “diversion from the real issues”?

    It’s always a sign of something to hide when one side of an argument put forward assertions in bad faith, propositions that they quite obviously don’t believe in themselves but which they have cynically calculated will sway the voters by confusing. Look for more “FPTP is the best voting system in the world! If we abandon it, Britain will turn into Weimar Germany! AV is too complicated and too favourable to minor parties! Plus it’s erratic, so if we do change we should go the whole hog to Borda or Condorcet! For whatever readon – anything but the actual reform currently on the table!” arguments between now and next May.

  17. Mike Homfray

    I am going to vote No. Its partially because I don’t see any reason why I should do anything to assist the FibDems or the Coalition, but its about far more than that. AV is worse than FPTP. It is less, not more proportional, and will make it harder for small parties to gain representation. Indeed, the situation is such that larger parties have their support exaggerated still further if any way ahead of the others.

    I don’t like the fact that the No campaign is dominated by fringe right-wing loons, so await a Labour says No campaign with expectation

  18. Dylan Lewis

    RT @leftfootfwd: Six months from the AV referendum, how are the campaigns shaping up? http://bit.ly/9IMg2Z

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    ‎’BOGUS REFERENDUM’ NEWS:
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    UK Electoral Law, UK Electoral Registers & CERO Scrutiny Powers NOT ‘Fit For Purpose’:
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