The untold story of the AV referendum campaign

Successfully building the largest grassroots democratic movement in recent history is the untold story of the AV referendum campaign, writes Katie Ghose.

Katie Ghose is the chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society

“In six months we built a machine that any political party would be envious of” – which campaign was the speaker referring to? Was it on spending cuts, healthcare reform? Surprisingly the speaker was an undergraduate talking about his recent involvement in the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign. I met him last month in Sheffield, with dozens of campaigners of all ages, from all over South Yorkshire, some long term party activists, many non-partisan.

All were angry about the referendum result and had some searing criticisms of the campaign to vent. All were passionate about continuing the fight for a better democracy and brimming over with enthusiasm for the collegiate way they worked together.

Successfully building the largest grassroots democratic movement in recent history is the untold story of the referendum.

The Yes campaign had no local or regional infrastructure and without a comparator, journalists seemed nervous or disinterested in giving column inches to a remarkable organisation that took root and grew up in a matter of months; the No side had access to the Conservative Party machine, with both the resources and skills to mobilise party activists, disseminate materials, utilise local media opportunities and target swing voters.

We owe it to future campaigners to turn our gaze away from Westminster and unearth the real story of the Yes campaign in local communities across the UK. To do this we need high quality data and robust analysis to understand a different kind of campaign, which tried to hone party political techniques whilst attempting to distance itself from politicians as an NGO-style ‘people’s campaign’.

Others say that aping party political techniques was impossible; we would never be able to rival a real party machine so should have put our scant resources elsewhere. An independent evaluation will help demonstrate if a referendum campaign can ever succeed when it has not one of the major party political machines at its disposal. But should the answer be No?

In losing the vote, we built an extraordinarily resilient movement (more than 150 groups at the last count), who are already regrouping, adapting and rebranding to be ready for the next initiative. From community assemblies, to local government reform, House of Lords and voter registration they are not short on ideas of where to deploy their energies.

They also have the benefit of experience that a poor understanding of the issues, combined with killer confusion from the No campaign meant that there was no ‘readiness for reform’. Rather than shut up shop for a generation, many groups are embracing the chance to get stuck into the big issue of public education they felt was needed in the years running up to May 5th. Working with schools, universities and community centres they hope to lay the ground for a better understanding of the problems with our politics, without which solutions are irrelevant.

No one knows when House of Commons reform will be back on the agenda, but it could be as soon as the next general election.

It is ironic that out of a bitter defeat on May 5th, we have created a standing army already intent on laying the groundwork for future success.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.