Sunday 9 January 2011

Oops! Why Churchill isn't the best poster boy for first-past-the-post

The Independent on Sunday has asked advertising agencies to produce Yes and No posters for the campaigns for and against the Alternative Vote in May's referendum.

There is an online gallery here.

For the Yes side, I thought by far the most effective poster is No MPs seat should be safe from King & Tuke, which keeps the argument clear and simple. The Yes campaign should snap it up.

But I am afraid that the same agency also win Next Left's political ignorance prize for inadequate research with its "No" effort.

Simon Tuke, creative director of King & Tuke says of his poster Churchill: ""Great leaders have the Marmite factor. AV elects the lowest common denominator".

So what's his Churchill slogan.

"With alternative voting, the losers could win".

Yes, that's Churchill who only once won a majority in a General Election as a party leader. In 1951, when he got an overall majority with 48% of the vote despite being behind Labour, who had 48.8% of the vote in first place.

Even if it wasn't for that inconvenient electoral history, Tuke entirely bottles his point by choosing a man who is now a legendary national hero (winner of 'greatest Britons' no less) and claiming him as a 'marmite' leader. That 'marmite' point would be much better illustrated by Margaret Thatcher (though she'd have got in too, somewhat more constrained, under AV, given the pattern of Alliance preferences in the 1980s).

Of course, that would put off as many voters as it would appeal to. Churchill would be more of a broad consensus majority choice. Which wasn't his point at all.

There's now a rather greater chance our current broken electoral system will pick the wrong winner in future, just as it did for Churchill then.

It's an interesting exercise. It demonstrates the difficulty of gettig voting systems across (I didn't think this 1+2 = 5 or this "man date" made much sense, and wouldn't have been sure whether if they were no or yes arguments without the strapline.

It also demonstrates the political naivety of some ad agencies. We have a Tory-branded poster branding Clegg as a joke and a LibDem attack on Cameron for being fake change.

Some people might think so. But the Coalition partners couldn't possibly comment.

If we flag Churchill offside for being nonsense, I thought that the best anti-AV one was probably the Beacon Brands one on 'the trainee valve tot', which is on the 'if you don't know, vote no' theme.

As its creator says

"An anagram expresses the difficulty in getting our heads around what AV might mean. Why bother to work it out? Just vote no."

Given the difficulty of finding evidence-based reasons as to why AV is genuinely offensive to traditional supporters of the current system, this appeal to ignorance is what much anti-AV advocacy boils down to.

It doesn't deserve to work. The bad news is that it might.


J said...

"No MPs seat should be safe from King & Tuke, which keeps the argument clear and simple. The Yes campaign should snap it up."

Nearly every seat that is safe under FPTP is safe under AV, and some seats that aren't safe under FPTP will be safe under AV.

This is an argument for PR, not AV.

Sunder Katwala said...


Perhaps. Certainly, you can make the PR point. (Some PR systems have super-safe seats, and some don't, and I assume you prefer the former, as most British advocates of PR would).

On AV, I think it is more complicated, as neither you nor I can say we know what the pattern of 1st preferences would be in the first AV General Election, still less do any of us know what the overall candidate and party system look like, and the way in which different candidates and parties might interact over two or three elections.

Academic studies suggest around 10% of voters say they voted tactically in recent General Elections. That would be about 2.5 million votes. But others may be voting eg for a LibDem in SW London or northern cities without thinking of it as a tactical vote, and may rethink their options.

Moreover, a candidate who wins a seat say 38-31% at present might hold it 50-42% (so you say "safe; no change) but the campaign and issue implications of that might be different. They would have had to engage with a broader range of voters in order to secure that victory, while there is much less incentive to reach out at present if one can focus on mobilising known support. If, say, the Green party had around 5% support, those voters might exert some influence or pressure.

donpaskini said...

I think the "Alternative Vote" ad is by far the best of these - it gets across two key facts: "this costs £80 million" and "Nick Clegg supports it".

The pro-AV ads seem to be preaching to the converted. The key swing voter in this election will be a Labour-supporting pensioner in Glasgow[1]. They are unlikely to be concerned by whether or not their MP has a safe seat. The key message which campaigners need to get across for this group is that the Tories want them to vote No.

[1] More generally, the key voters are Labour supporters who are voting in the local/devolved parliament elections and who aren't interested in electoral reform. If the pro-AV campaign can't win amongst this group (which will be turning out at around 40% as compared to c. 5% in areas where there are no other elections), they've got no chance.