So: the margin was slightly huger even than I had predicted. Let the post-mortems begin. Because we need to know how to do much better next time. The next referendum on PR might be as little as 5 years away And we should be pressing immediately for PR for the upper house, which would be a historic accomplishment. (On this, see my guest piece appearing tonight on LibDemVoice.)
Let’s get some obvious and crucial points out of the way first:
· Clegg was of course an albatross around the Yes side’s neck.
· The right-wing-press decided that it wasn’t going to tolerate AV, and that made a huge impact.
· The No side had more money (it hasn’t declared how much more that’s exactly how we know that it had more, because otherwise it would certainly have declared otherwise), and money buys votes in a ‘democracy’.
· The plain lies of the No campaign and of senior Tories, and the strategy of ‘Confuse the voters as much as possible’, seem to have paid off.
· The official Electoral Commission document that everyone received didn’t help.
But it seems to me, having thought about this long and hard during the campaign, as it went along, and went nowhere that the failure of the Yes campaign to make any progress at all can also be put down in significant part to the following factors, over which there should be a little more breast-beating. Some of these are the responsibility of the official Yes campaign; some are more widely distributed around the broader ‘progressive’ movement:
· The failure to identify the #No2AV campaign from an early stage and consistently with Nick Griffin and the BNP. Here is what this might have looked like: http://www.youtube.com/user/thepeoplesayyes#p/a/u/1/6ojwifv4xdE
· The failure of HopeNotHate to endorse the #Yes2AV campaign: such an endorsement was said to be ‘in the pipeline’ but never materialised. HopeNotHate’s gargantuan email list could have been used to great effect to bolster the Yes campaign, instead of being frittered away on short-termist efforts to campaign against the BNP in particular localities.
· The failure of 38degrees to endorse the #Yes2AV campaign: This is the dreadful fence-sitting job that they came up with in the end: http://blog.38degrees.org.uk/2011/05/04/av-referendum-reasons-to-vote/ . Again, 38degrees have of course a truly massive email etc. list that could have supported AV as a cause that would have unlocked so much more potential in future for the kind of causes 38degrees is supposed to stand for.
· The preponderance of the NO voice in Labour raises a serious question as to whether there really is a ‘progressive movement’ in this country. Electoral reform a referendum on which Labour itself of course promised in its manifesto is a sine qua non of the mission of a site like Liberal Conspiracy, the idea of a pluralist centre-left, a potential rainbow ‘progressive alliance’. The bulk of LabourNo squatting tribally in the way of it, and providing thereby some ‘legitimate’ cover to the Murdoch-Dacre-Elliott-Griffin-Cameron alliance leading the fight against reform, was depressing in the extreme.
· The deep overall failure to message adequately, as my www.greenwordsworkshop colleague Matt Wootton has been arguing repeatedly also here on LC: See http://liberalconspiracy.org/2011/04/02/the-shiny-new-yes2av-slogan-has-been-unveiled-its-awful/ http://liberalconspiracy.org/2011/04/28/electoral-reform-why-the-yes-campaigns-message-is-failing/ . The messaging problem began with the failure of the YES side to establish that there was a profound problem with FPTP. That is the first step that any campaign needs: ‘Here is a serious problem that needs fixing’. YES failed at that first hurdle. (For intimations of what a better-messaged campaign could have looked like, see http://www.leftfootforward.org/2011/04/unofficial-yes-to-av-campaigners-are-achieving-success-from-the-grass-roots/ )
· The official YES campaign was over-centralised. My first-hand experience of this was confirmed by others in the campaign on the ground, including local YES-group-leaders. Don’t get me wrong: clearly, YES actually did, to its credit, build up a serious on the ground campaign, unlike NO; but it still treated it in an overly-centralised manner. Large numbers of leaflets etc. were repeatedly dumped with relatively little warning onto people ill-equipped to utilise them in an adequate and timely manner. We thus had the terrible irony of the side with less money (Yes) ending up with vast numbers of undelivered letters and leaflets the printing for which had of course been paid for out of that thin war-chest
· The trouble started even with the name of the official campaign. The ‘Campaign for Fairer Votes’. ‘Fairer’, disastrously, implies that the existing system may already be ‘fair’! [‘Fairer’ could mean ‘even fairer’.] That’s a hopeless basis on which to run against the status quo. (For a deepening of this kind of criticism, see Matt’s brilliant article here: http://www.greenwordsworkshop.org/node/28 )
· Finally, and crucially: the YES campaign made a horrendous mistake in not doing a freepost leaflet to the whole country, but instead focussing its resources extremely selectively. For just half a million pounds, everyone in the country could have received a focussed high-production-values leaflet, to counter the unpleasant propaganda that the official NO campaign DID push through every letterbox in the land. The YES campaign said to me that they had decided to spend their money elsewhere. I just don’t buy that. But, even if it were true, even just a quarter of a million pounds would have been enough to have got a basic hard-hitting leaflet through every door in the country. As it was, I found that there were many people who had been convinced by the NO material that they had received, and who had simply had nothing from YES to counter it or trump it or to reframe.
These are some of the areas on which we must reflect, and must do better — if there is a next time. There was a serious failure to engage and inspire the country, this time. A failure to brand Yes as the Future and No as the Past. A self-destructive inability to point to the Tories and say “THESE are the people who are holding us back, THESE people are just saying this because they don’t want change, because they’ve had the system stitched up to their advantage”.
That, above all, has got to change.
[An edited version of this post first appeared at http://liberalconspiracy.org/2011/05/07/the-yes-to-av-campaign-let-the-post-mortems-begin/ ]