I’m hardly the world foremost expert on political campaigning; in fact, I’ve only worked on two campaigns — the `Conservatives’ much-maligned 2010 effort and the No to AV campaign — and in both cases I sat with the wonks while others did the street-fighting. But the contrasts between these campaigns are worth noting.
Most obviously, the Conservatives failed to win a majority. No to AV, by contrast, won almost 70% of the vote — a remarkable achievement.
Of course, part of this simply reflects the relative strength of the opposition. Yes to AV ran a bizarre, rudderless campaign – Eddie Izzard as your front-man, really? – while the LibDems and Labour ran relatively disciplined, effective campaigns, Duffygate aside.
More fundamentally, however, the difference reflects the campaigns’ relative ability to connect with normal voters. While we laboured over a laudable, intellectual policy agenda for the Conservatives — big society, transparency, green deal, etc. — the No to AV campaign focused on the day-to-day concerns of normal people (which, in case you haven’t noticed, don’t include big society).
This seems like a completely unremarkable achievement — after all, you’d expect that people running an election campaign would acutely aware of the concerns of majority of the public. But it’s not: maintaining a level-headed, non-Westminster village view is the hardest part of a campaign.
Part of the problem is that it’s hard to actually get the pulse of the public. By definition, no one working in Westminster is normal, so we turn to our (non-representative) friends and family, or to (inherently limited) opinion polls for insight. And we listen to columnists and public intellectuals, who almost invariably assert that the general public happens to share their personal interests and policy preferences – the pundit’s fallacy.
More broadly, the problem is that London’s metropolitan elite dominate the coverage of political campaigns. The BBC and Fleet Street journalists that provide a campaign with external perspective have distinct, London-based perspectives and concerns — their views simply don’t reflect the views of the broader public. Looking to media coverage for perspective is like staring into a fun-house mirror; the picture isn’t entirely wrong, but it is significantly distorted and inaccurate.
And this points to Matthew Elliot’s greatest strength leading the No campaign: his willingness to ignore the pieties of bien pensant intellectual class. We focused on cost, confusion and extremism, all of which are issues that resonate with the broader public. Until the polling turned our way, however, this strategy came under relentless attack for not being sophisticated or thoughtful enough.
The Yes campaign, by contrast, set off in pursuit of the mythical ‘progressive majority’. This seemed like a great strategy in the aforementioned liberal, urban enclaves, and they won over a majority of the chattering class. But, fortunately, we now know that this so-called majority amounts to about 30% of the population; most voters couldn’t care less about the intricacies of vote counting recounting. The Yes campaign was mislead by the fun-house mirror.