This is the second in a series of "inquest" posts, examining the defeat of the Alternative Vote in the May 2011 referendum: this time looking at the choices made by the Yes campaign in the six to nine months before the vote, after the referendum legislation was in place. Read the opening post here. I write as a supporter of the Yes campaign and Labour Yes.
The Yes to AV campaign was dealt a very difficult hand. That it was played badly is undeniable following a massive rout of losing the referendum by 36 points, losing with every demographic imaginable. The final ICM/Guardian poll, which got the 32% to 68% result spot on, even showed Yes winning only 48% of those hardy loyalists still voting LibDem.
Clearly, the campaign failed pretty catastrophically. But it is important to acknowledge that everybody involved in campaigning for a Yes vote worked hard in unauspicious circumstances for a cause they believed in. Democratic campaigners should respect that effort, but must also now attempt a constructive, frank audit of the lessons to be learnt.
The scale of defeat perhaps strengthens the theory that the campaign was not decisive, and that the die was cast by the choices made by the LibDems in the Coalition to set the referendum up. (The next AV inquest post will examine this). Perhaps a more effective campaign would have meant losing 40-60 or 45-55 rather than winning. Yet the Yes campaign did lead in several polls in the months before the vote, though without doing enough to persuade large numbers of don't know voters who were likely to break for the status quo. Its achievement was to panic the Tory party and David Cameron into a concerted campaign attack on the Alternative Vote, leading to a decisive victory for the No campaign.
So what went wrong for Yes?
1. No credible road-map to victory
It would have taken 9.3 million votes to win the referendum. Both sides assumed that up to 10 million votes would be needed.
But the Yes campaign neglected to direct its appeal to the groups of voters it would need, based on a naively optimistic reading of a massive polling exercise in November 2010 on which the campaign strategy was based. The Yes campaign hoped and expected to hold on to a quarter to a third of Conservatives, and to remain ahead among Labour voters, on the basis of the late 2010 polling.
Yet directing appeals for the votes of the supporters of the two major parties was always an explicitly peripheral goal for the national Yes campaign, fatally underestimating how much their opppnents would target and shift these large batallions of those who were most likely to vote.
Any plausible account of a Yes victory scenario depended foundationally on winning Labour voters, and probably needing to do so by a margin of 2:1. (This was particularly true once the kite-flying about Michael Gove leading a Cameronista Yes flank melted into nothing, as the Tory tribe mounted a unified defence of the status quo). So Labour voters were going to be decisive - but the Yes campaign didn't view them as a priority audience. While Labour was likely to have an opinion poll lead, with its voters considerably more open in principle to AV than most Tories, it was little secret that many Labour voters would be difficult to persuade on anything that looked Liberal Democrat-led or like a Nick Clegg project. The Yes campaign, contentiously, made much of that. Far too little attention was paid to appealing to Labour votes, particularly in the north, or alternatively to centre-right votes across England.
The Yes campaign targetted its attention elsewhere, often seeking to mobilise greater turnout among younger and metropolitan voters, in part because those who were likely to support change but less likely to vote. So the Yes hope of winning 9 or 10 million votes depended far too heavily on could be called a 'Celtic/urban/student rainbow coalition', hoping to get a boost from differential turnout in Scotland and Wales, to mobilise metropolitan votes in big cities like London, judging these as the three areas thought most likely to vote Yes - though London's share of the referendum vote was diluted on the day that Scottish and Welsh votes were maximised - and to turn out younger voters and those most disillusioned with politics.
This strategy was especially unlikely to work once the referendum was being held on the day of the local elections - when the third of the electorate most engaged in politics was going to vote anyway, and to cast a vote on the voting system too. A campaign focusing too much on key 'niche' segments of the electorate and too little on the mainstream electorate was reflected in a result where a handful of hyper-liberal-cosmopolitan areas voted Yes.
2. Prioritising the ground game over the air war
The Yes campaign did one thing very well: its operation to mobilise activists and supporters to campaign for change was strong (despite, as Green activist Rupert Read has noted in his own inquest post, not succeeding with some potential mobilisers, such as Hope Not Hate and 38 Degrees, who sat firmly on the fence).
But the Yes campaign did mobilise its core activists effectively, and engaged new and younger supporters to get involved too. The Yes campaign will probably turn out to have been one of the largest such mobilisations of its kind in UK politics, certainly for a non-party campaign. Yes campaigners worked hard to make this possible - and many people enthusiastically gave their time and energy to phone-bank, leaflet and advocate for the Yes cause.
As a result, the Yes campaign built an impressive ground campaign in a short period of time. This was probably the single area in which it much outperformed the No campaign.
But it was blown away in the war of the airwaves, on messaging and political strategy - partly because of the messages it chose to deploy, but also partly because of a decision that traditional methods of political communication (like posters or local newspaper ads) should be a lower priority for resources than trendier ways to mobilise a movement for change.
So later detailed studies of the Yes campaign may generate some important lessons for NGO and civic campaigning in mobilising advocacy and support, particularly on single issues, or in seeking to pressure and persuade government or political parties. But it will also surely demonstrate some of the limits of social media and grassroots mobilisation in national electoral campaigns.
A national, UK-wide referendum could never have been won quite so much from the ground-up.
3. Outframed and outfought by the No campaign
The No campaign was brutally effective. Its central arguments were that the Alternative Vote was complicated, costly and would only benefit Nick Clegg. They argued that from the start to the end of the campaign.
The Yes campaign's argument for fairer votes shifted much more throughout the campaign - and was often focused on reacting to their opponent's frame. Apart from 'make politicians work harder' (discussed below), it would be hard to identify its core arguments.
More broadly, the referendum campaign provided a textbook example of the thesis of Drew Westen's excellent The Political Brain on the mistakes which progressive politicians and campaigners too often make, putting an irrational faith in explanation and reason, and failing to understand the importance of making an emotional connection with voters. Westen is trying to explain why candidates like Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry lost to George Bush (senior and junior) - but there are few clearer case studies than the AV referendum of his thesis.
No campaign comms operative and top blogger Dan Hodges is revelling in the notoreity of his contribution to the campaign. He probably now thinks of himself as the Lee Atwater of the electoral systems referendum. But there is a very good pinch of painful truth in his dissection of the Yes campaign's failures for Labour Uncut - and an accurate poltiical prediction too.
The No campaign has been much criticised for falsehoods and inventions. They didn't need to lie to make their arguments. "If you're angry that we're wasting £80 million on Nick Clegg's referendum, vote No" could have been the basis of an aggressive but accurate campaign about cost, without the myth of voting machines. The Yes campaign didn't anticipate the cost argument, and never found a way to deal with it, deciding that talking about it would give it greater currency, then talking about it enough to do that anyway without effectively exploding it. The final push through Chris Huhne's high octane performance was to call the no campaign out for lying, as an example of the old politics at its worst. That looked more like a 'he said, she said' political squabble to those who were not already partisans than the moral victory which the Yes camp wanted to claim.
4. Anti-politics didn't work
If this was a campaign for political 'change', it was going to be a different kind of campaign too - putting 'the people' against 'the politicians'. It may have had some merit as one theme to appeal to one 'post-party politics' segment of opinion. As a central frame for the campaign, it failed badly.
This was, in effect, a decision not to campaign on the merits of the change being proposed, instead offering AV as the answer to the MPs' expenses crisis. "Make lazy MPs work harder" was a daft cartoon caricature of a legitimate argument which could have been made for AV - that it would require MPs to seek broader support, make more votes count, and allow every voter to cast their real first choice.
There is little evidence that this cut through with voters - and it crowded out something that the Yes campaign needed as a foundation: a compelling case for the change that was proposed. Even voters who didn't engage a great deal with the arguments about the relative merits of two different electoral systems were still likely to think that how we elect our MPs matters. If no convincing case for the change was made, a majority was likely to default to the status quo.
The anti-political message also lacked credibility with informed opinion - including AV supporters in politics and the media - largely because it doesn't stand up. This rather undermined the Yes campaign's claim to the moral high ground. They were certainly more sinned against than sinning, but facilitated a 'plague on both your houses' discussion in the final week or two, when the media finally paid a little more attention to the campaigns.
But there were more important disadvantages for the Yes campaign of pursuing this strategy.
Celebrities as citizens?: Having decided on a citizens campaign, the Yes campaign used celebrities - often comedians - as a proxy for grassroots opinion. Comedians are funny, and often cynical, but only a very limited slice of the public is going to see them as authentic voices of the grassroots concerns of 'people like me'. (Matthew Taylor of the RSA has written an interesting blog about his idea of a more plausible way that the campaign could have got across this core pro-citizen message about politics listening to marginalised voices).
Lack of media salience: Kris Akabusi and Eddie Izzard might get you a brief news item and photo. They simply can't drive the print or broadcast political news agenda. Few could have predicted the scale of competing news events - such as Libya and the Arab Spring, as well as the Royal Wedding (which was 'on diary) - but the AV campaign was always going to have a challenge of generating media coverage. The frame which the Yes campaign chose made it largely irrelevant to political editors and lobby correspondents who write about politics, and left broadcasters focusing on the 'does anyone care?' angle. Rectifying this in the last fortnight meant ditching the central frame of the campaign, with pro-reform politicians finally putting the issue on the front-pages.
Practical disengagement of Yes advocates: The practical effect of putting an anti-politics pitch front and centre was to undermine the Yes campaign's ability to mobilise MPs and activists involved with political parties, among whom there was significant backlash to theis central frame.
There were examples of LibDem MPs who were not prepared to distribute national Yes literature, promoting messages to their own constituents that they needed a kick up the backside, though Labour reaction was probably considerably more hostile still. And there were some Labour MPs on the fence who went No on the basis of this messaging, even if others may have used it as an excuse. More significant, the choice of this central campaign frame meant several MPs who were willing to be listed as Yes voters, were unwilling to do anything else which would associate themselves with that anti-politics message, from writing opinion pieces in local newspapers to endorsing campaign activities to their own party members. As Labour voters would have had a decisive impact in a close result, anything that demobilised Labour MPs from persuading them was costly.
Labour Yes did seek to distance its arguments from the anti-politics pitch of the national campaign, but it was bound to be difficult to do so once the anti-politics message was central to the campaign's TV broadcasts.
The 'dinosaurs' charge failed: the public do listen to politicians about politics
A related core belief of the 'Yes' campaign was that the No campaign was helping its opponents whenever they put up former politicians, like Margaret Beckett or John Reid, believing they would be seen as out-of-date "dinosaurs" pursuing their own self-interest.
This didn't harm the No campaign nearly as much as Yes thought, if it harmed them at all. If you automatically think 'dinosaur' when you see John Reid or John Prescott on TV, then you probably know where you stood on AV too. The Yes campaign needed the voters they appeal to as well. Countering them probably required a bit less Eddie Izzard and a lot more Alan Johnson. (As an added bonus, AJ does jokes too!).
On an unfamiliar issue, the public may well believe that experienced politicians know what they are talking about, and they are effective media operators. On news programmes, Yes politicians who can speak human like Vince Cable and John Denham were effective advocates, as were No voices like Tom Harris. Sportsmen or comics on both sides often came across as less knowledgeable.
The Yes campaign conducted almost no testing of which of its advocates the public found plausible. When a small number of focus groups were conducted late in the campaign, an interesting finding was that veteran 'maverick' politician Tony Benn who was found to be one of the most effective, straight talking communicators of the case for change.
The public appeal of anti-politics is easily overestimated. The Yes campaign seemed to believe that the public wish to elect a Parliament full of independent MPs like Martin Bell, in which case Esther Rantzen would surely be on the green benches now. The Hansard Society's regular audits of political engagement capture that public attitudes are nuanced. Most of the public have a considerably more positive attitude towards their own MP than they do to MPs as a whole, for example. That in itself would undermine the efficacy of a 'make them work harder' message. The Power Inquiry's 2010 election posters attacking individual politicians in their own constituencies were ineffective and disappeared with little trace. The lesson as to why was lost on a Yes campaign which proceeded from similar assumptions.
5. The 'groupthink' of too narrow a campaign
The No campaign was 99% Tory-donor funded and Tory-led, yet did a pretty good job of disguising this to broader public audiences. Yet there was a constant emphasis on foregrounding the Labour support that they did have, including Jane Kennedy's role as deputy of the campaign, and giving as much prominence to ex-Labour ministers like Margaret Beckett and John Reid wherever possible.
Strong support from Labour voters was not sufficient for a Yes victory, but it was certainly a necessary part of a winning coalition. Ultimately, the No campaign paid much more attention to the decisive role of Labour supporters than the Yes campaign. This partly reflected the choice of the "anti-politician" frame. That decision itself was a result of the core Yes campaign steering group being essentially self-appointed from within the existing movement for proportional representation.
The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and Electoral Reform Society brought very significant financial resource. That was essential to making a national Yes campaign viable, but the money came with an excessive reliance on the existing insider networks of those organisations, which were far too narrow for such a campaign to succeed.
Campaign director John Sharkey and other Yes campaign leaders consistently sought to engage constructively with all supporters of reform. But those pre-existing networks always held strategic and financial control of the campaign: this was reflected in the central assumptions made about how to win and the key strategic calls of the campaign, as this blog feared last September, noting its narrow composition
Right-of-centre voices - including UKIP - were conspicously absent and marginalised, as indeed were any advocates of the Alternative Vote itself (as opposed to PR supporters).
There was some striking 'groupthink' here in these insider networks not appreciating quite how narrow the core group was. The JRRT is a backer of liberal political causes, as well as being a significant donor to the Liberal Democrats. Its board is dominated by LibDem grandees. The Electoral Reform Society includes cross-party and non-party voices, but further 'civic' advocates were then recruited from extremely similar networks, such as the JRRT-funded Power Inquiry on democratic reform.
Making Neal Lawson of Compass the main Labour link voice captures how narrowly cast the group's "outreach" efforts were, often 'reaching out' to often overlapping 'insider' networks. Compass was able to reinforce an appeal to a self-identified progressive Labour left, most of it already onside. It is a vocal contributor to Labour debates, but its deliberately aggressive campaigning gives it something of a 'marmite' factor inside the party. (Compass is also JRRT-funded project, and may well be the sole Labour-identifying organisation which is. Its 2010 campaign for tactical voting and subsequent laudable decision to broaden its own membership left it much less well placed to engage agnostic and tribal Labour opinion).
The Labour Yes campaign mobilised an impressive range of party opinion - from John McDonnell and Ken Livingstone to Peter Mandelson and Jack Straw - though the support of the party leader and 90% of the shadow cabinet were not enough to secure half of the PLP.
While Labour Yes had strong support from Labour think-tanks and pressure groups, from Progress on the right to Compass on the left and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform. With the equivalent of two full-time staff, Labour Yes had little time or capacity to deepen the Yes campaign's extremely weak reach into the trade unions.
The balance of financial and staff resources between the national Yes campaign and its Labour Yes partner was something in the region of 30:1 or more. A ratio rather closer to 3:1 or 2:1 could have facilitated a serious attempt to do more to contest the tribal Labour north, particularly as Labour party resources were very much out of play, due to the concurrent local elections as well as the divided internal politics of the party's organisation. (Ed Miliband did advocate prominently in the media for a Yes vote, working prominently with LibDems as long as they weren't Nick Clegg, on the grounds that a joint appearance would have lost more than they would have gained. There is more to be said about the role of the Labour leadership in the referendum, but that will require its own post).
The final fortnight saw a late push by Labour, LibDem and Green voices to emphasise how much David Cameron and George Osborne hoped to gain from a No vote. Of course, the push was far too late. though media and online advocacy did shift activist audiences among the hyperengaged. For example, LabourList's monthly 'state of the party' straw poll of about 500 of its readership saw Yes finally establish a 20%+ lead among this super-engaged audience, which had been split and agnostic on AV throughout. That's not a scientific finding and it wouldn't anyway follow that a strong Labour swing among more general audiences were possible too - but the Yes campaign never really tried to find out.
A great deal of Labour opinion in the north of England had long decided that the referendum was primarily about giving Nick Clegg a bloody nose.
We can all see - yes, with hindsight - that the Yes campaign made some important strategic mistakes. Please do share your views as to whether these were the important factors, or whether other issues had more impact on the result. And, when all of that is said and done, I am not necessarily convinced, after Autumn 2010, that it was in power of the Yes campaign to win this referendum.
We'll look at the impact of how the referendum was called in the next AV inquest post, later this week. (In a week or so, Next Left will also run a round-up of the best post-referendum campaign blogs and columns from different perspectives. If you've written about the campaigns, do please leave a link in the comments, or send it to us).