On Friday, Mark Thompson wrote that, “The AV campaign was a disgrace from both sides”. I tweeted that I thought he had drawn some wrong conclusions but that he made sensible points, and promised that I would expand in a comment on his post. It took me a while to think through, and it got long, and led me to some wider thoughts so I thought I’d write a full post here instead.
As I’ve written before, I was most disappointed by both campaigns. I was really looking to be persuaded on the merits of AV and instead was basically told that voting yes meant locking the Tories out of power forever. While I don’t think this is actually true, it was a monumentally stupid strategy to only talk to people who the campaign felt comfortable with (and that applies to their refusal to engage with, for example, Nigel Farage, and to their insistence that lots of Facebook, Twitter, discussion groups and stunt activity was enough to win).
Equally the obvious rebuttal to the No campaign’s argument that “extremists’ votes count more than your first preference” was to say that your first preference carried on counting in every round but they missed that entirely.
Basically the yes campaign only wanted to talk to people like it, were so convinced of the merits of their case that they thought they didn’t need to argue it, and thought shiny celebrity endorsements were enough (who was it who treated voters as if they were stupid?).
But the most wrong thing the Yes campaign did was to pretend that AV would ‘solve’ the ‘problem’ of safe seats, ensure all MPs had the support of more than 50 per cent of their electorate, and make MPs work harder, be more honest, and not cheat on their expenses. All of which is just patent, disingenuous nonsense, and treats voters like idiots.
I think the No campaign was on exceedingly shaky but not outright false grounds on its cost calculations (though I think we should be prepared to pay a sensible amount to ensure our democracy is fair).
I think that their attacks on Nick Clegg were unkind – but they were, after all, more or less true, and the same accusations of breaking promises could indeed be applied to the Conservatives as well. And, as I noted at the time, the pre-emptive ‘We didn’t batter him as much as we could have done’ was an interesting piece of protective spin.
I’m as keen as anyone to hold politicians to account – but I think the Lib Dems (and the Tories) had no real choice other than to compromise when they drew up the Coalition Agreement. I want them to make the case for what they believe, without being yelled at for daring to stray away from received wisdom, innate prejudices or the party line. But that does pre-suppose that they are also prepared to proof their ideas against wilful misinterpretation (which yesterday’s David Willetts’ outing seems to imply they cannot).
As I’ve said above, the successful No argument that some voters’ votes count twice was nonsense – but the fact that the Yes campaign failed to counter it shows how dismal their campaign was, and I suppose, in the end, it depends on your interpretation of ‘vote’.
Another of the successful things the No campaign did was to bog down the Yes campaign in rebuttal. If the Yes campaign had properly attack-proofed its campaign, that wouldn’t have been such a difficulty.
I didn’t like the No campaign. I thought they failed to defend FPTP to begin with, and only after some months did they finally get round to the ‘fair’ argument that it means everyone has one vote, of equal value. But anyway, enough of that – I thought both campaigns were off-putting; but the interesting thing will be, what lessons do the political parties draw from them?
I’ve written before about single-issue campaigning, and about how I’d love to see fewer whipped votes, MPs being allowed to explore an issue with the public, full accountability for all MPs to their constituents every election-time… And I’ve also spent a lot of time pondering whether this blog, and our Twitter and Facebook pages are really of much use at all in anything other than talking to the people who are already interested and committed.
I recently attended an Adam Smith Institute event on whether Twitter killed the Blogging Star (answer – probably not, as 140 characters is too few to have an argument); something that caught my ear was that online communications generally achieve three key things:
- They remove the capacity of politicians to constantly triangulate – because there’s full disclosure to all, always
- They ensure consistency – because there’s a record
- Somehow, online feels a more intimate medium, more direct and therefore there’s a closer connection.
I think all of these are good things – and it will be interesting to see what model the political parties take up for future elections. As Paul Waugh notes in his piece on the digital war during the AV campaign, there are plenty of lessons to be drawn from both campaigns.
But perhaps the most fundamental thing is the lesson we can draw from the No campaign about coalitions. No – not the Conservative/Lib Dem one. But the building of coalitions of interest. I really never thought I’d see that many Labour MPs working with Conservative MPs (or vice versa). It is to the enormous credit of the No campaign that they understood the need to build that coalition of interest; and I hope that this is the key lesson that the Conservatives (hopefully not anyone else!) draw from the AV experience.
To return to Mark’s post. I said that I thought he had drawn some wrong conclusions. One of those is that there will be no accountability for the claims made and the way the campaigns were run. I think that’s not necessarily true – in a different way to perhaps he meant it. I think that these campaigns were fascinating try-outs for how to run political campaigns in the UK, and that what worked, and what was emotionally successful will be fascinating to chew over.
A small anecdote to finish off. I was at a 30th birthday party in Essex on the weekend, for a friend with two small children. He’s not at all well-off, runs a small business, and isn’t very interested in politics but he feels he should vote and know the gist of what’s going on. I overheard him say to someone that he’d gone off David Cameron in the last few weeks – he saw that I’d heard, was profusely apologetic, but I asked why (he’s basically our target vote in a marginal seat). He said he didn’t like the aggressive campaigning that he’d seen recently – there was no positive reason to vote with DC. I think that’s hugely instructive.
I want the Tories’ next election campaign to be properly thought through, with policies that aim to do the right thing. I want them to build a coalition of support through positive persuasion, not fear-mongering (which is one of the reasons I am so fed up of CCHQ press releases saying that Labour would have cut NHS spending. Money spent does not necessarily equal good outcomes – something that we’re happy to argue for elsewhere). I want them to understand that they need to persuade people of the merits of their case, not distort and smear and undermine people who, after all, will have been our partners in the period leading up to the election or who have (hopefully) done their job properly as an Opposition.