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.

30 Responses to “The untold story of the AV referendum campaign”

  1. Knut Cayce

    The untold story of the AV referendum campaign: //bit.ly/kNGhEB by @ElectoralReform’s Katie Ghose

  2. chris paling

    The untold story of the AV referendum campaign: //bit.ly/kNGhEB by @ElectoralReform’s Katie Ghose

  3. Gareth Davies

    //bit.ly/jEE7cV – What went wrong with the AV campaign – but no mention of Yes 4 the North east who made the same mistakes in 2004

  4. Alexandra Bo

    RT @leftfootfwd The untold story of the AV referendum campaign: //t.co/tbficHz

  5. MustBeRead

    Katie Ghose: No to AV campaign "already regrouping, adapting and rebranding to be ready for the next initiative". //t.co/Nnbr7k5

  6. Ed's Talking Balls

    I revelled in the Yes campaign’s humiliating defeat. It was a great day for democracy and the blogposts by members of the Yes campaign in the aftermath, trying to explain away the absolute hiding at the polls, were the cherry on the cake.

  7. Selohesra

    With the economy in crisis and wars going on around the planet – many involving our troops it is bizarre that the most important issue some of these Yes campaigners could see to fight about was replacing one perhaps imperfect electoral system with another that is even worse. If it had been about PR then arguably that is fairer but not necessarily better.

  8. Sam Nixon

    The untold story of the AV referendum campaign: //bit.ly/kNGhEB by @ElectoralReform’s Katie Ghose

  9. Nils Boray

    “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.”

    I wish you well but suspect that many of the standing army will be drawing parts of their pension before another opportunity arises to change the way we vote

  10. Stephen

    Just two points:
    Firstly, the “Yes” campaign is described as the “No” campaign in paragraph four. (Fixed – Ed)
    Secondly, the Yes campaign was favoured by the leadership of every other party – but lost because millions of Labour voters defied Robotic Ed.

  11. Hengist

    Sorry Katie epic fail, your headline promises the untold story but the copy just gives us the same old story of a lack of resources/organization . AV would have given the voter more say, but you ran a campaign that was reactive to the NO camp, constantly on the back foot. What do you say to the voices that perhaps the Yes campaign lacked leadership ?

  12. Will Moy

    Successful campaigns come from self-criticism. Looks like Katie Ghose will never run one. Long awaited but waffle: //t.co/slFFnUk

  13. Ed's Talking Balls

    Even a superb campaign wouldn’t have culminated in a victory for Yes. As the old saying goes, you can’t polish a turd, hence the crushing defeat.

  14. Broken OfBritain

    The untold story of the AV referendum campaign: //bit.ly/kNGhEB by @ElectoralReform’s Katie Ghose

  15. J P

    RT @BrokenOfBritain: RT @leftfootfwd: The untold story of the AV referendum campaign: //bit.ly/kNGhEB by @ElectoralReform’s Katie Ghose

  16. Electoral Reform Soc

    The untold story of the AV referendum campaign: //bit.ly/kNGhEB by @ElectoralReform’s Katie Ghose

  17. Jordan Millward

    The untold story of the AV referendum campaign: //bit.ly/kNGhEB by @ElectoralReform’s Katie Ghose

  18. SW Surrey Lib Dems

    The untold story of the AV referendum campaign: //bit.ly/kNGhEB by @ElectoralReform’s Katie Ghose

  19. Penelope J. Goodman

    The untold story of the AV referendum campaign: //bit.ly/kNGhEB by @ElectoralReform’s Katie Ghose

  20. Anon E Mouse

    I was in favour of the YES campaign until the “celebs” starting lecturing us and now it’s all over.

    The incompetence of the YES bunch means that there will now be no chance of electoral change for decades.

    Thanks for nothing guys….

  21. Pam

    Part of the problem was the lack of information on TV outside mainstream political programmes. Far better would have been if the BBC had run a one hour panorama special on both electoral systems, who uses them, how they work, and the advantages and disadvantages of both and pointing out where there were lies and half truths in both campaigns. It should also have been pointed out how many MPs on each side were involved in fiddling their expenses as this may explain their reasons. There were so many reasons the Yes campaign lost so badly in all but a few intelligent places, but biased media reporting did not help.

  22. Leon Wolfson

    The referendum certainly helped the Tories get their vote out for the local elections! I should be shocked that the LibDems fell for it, but…no, given their record lately..

  23. Alex Smethurst

    How the failure of #yes2av has to led to future success of electoral reform //t.co/PekYXN8 via @leftfootfwd @electoralreform

  24. Lib Dem Life

    The CEO of the Elect Reform Society utterly in denial about the referendum. Bonkers. //t.co/ZwwVa6N

  25. Richard

    What a load of tripe- I was a fervent supporter of AV before the Yes campaign started, and although even by the end of the campaign I was still in favour, I was embarrassed to be on the same side as that incompetently run shambles of a campaign. Whenever I talked to people, it transpired that they did not know what AV was- the Yes campaign had signally failed to inform anyone outside their core electorate.

    This referendum was the Yes campaign’s to lose, and boy, did they lose it. Badly organised and appallingly executed, the Yes Campaign was a prime example of why it is important to appeal to a wider audience than just a small, core constituency- in fact, unwittingly, they showed one of the problems of the FPTP system, where it is sufficient to concentrate on a small number of supporters (although even then, a slightly larger minority would be needed).

    Trying to somehow sell this campaign as anything other than a disaster, is to employ ostrich tactics- burying one’s head in the sand & commenting, while the rest of the body is being devoured by a passing hyena, that at least one’s head is safe and sound.
    I have no doubt that Katie Ghose had the best intentions, but this article suggests a certain detachment from reality.

  26. anonymous

    FPTP is defiantly not good… but AV doesn’t even touch PR…. doesn’t anyone remember pre election everyone was wanting PR… then post election its like it never happened… and then theres people wondering why a NO vote on AV happened, its no mystery really if it was a referendum on Proportional representation then who could say no to that…. it means Everyone’s vote counts… and there would be a fair representation of the country in parliament.. AV is not fair… why change from an unfair system to another unfair system…

  27. Gareth Jones

    //tinyurl.com/3kczcgx The untold story of the #Yes2AV #referendum campaign #uk #politics

  28. SwainesWorld

    I enjoyed the campaign enormously, and met some great people. But, Richard is bang on.
    The Y2AV campaign should have been a walk over. Instead it was a text book example of how not to do it. Almost every voter I met, except Tory knuckle draggers, thought AV was worth supporting after it was correctly explained. I just didn’t get to meet all voters. Shame. Should’ve had a National campaign . . .

  29. Sean

    Delusion rather than complacency now seems to afflict the Chair of the ERS whose needs to consider her position if the notion of electoral reform is ever to be taken seriously again for years to come.
    She still doesn’t realise the folly of not using the opportunity of a free mailing for every UK household, a decision which she claimed was on the grounds of being able to present a campaign which had saved money for the taxpayer.
    But so rattled was she by the lies on the ‘No’ leaflet that she wasn’t able to make even this case and instead was party to the suppression of a few brave area organisers’ attempts to reverse the decision.
    In short, she preached democracy but didn’t practise it in her own running of the campaign. Some on the inside have reported that she was mesmorised by James Sharkey,that there was indeed a masterplan to be unveiled in the last few weeks of the campaign – hence her ever more frantic online appeals for cash from supporters. However, this article perfectly illustrates either that she still has no intention of listening or that she doesn’t understand what ERS supporters have been telling her, which is even more serious.

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