Now the dust is settling I thought I'd quickly summarise the lessons from the AV campaign for the next referendum (!). As always in politics there are things we can influence and things we cannot, but we have to take it all into account.
- Ask the right question:
The last time we had a referendum in this country it was on a burning question that the public cared passionately about. This time we had a referendum on something that most of the public didn't even know existed before the campaign began.
If you have to explain what your campaigning for, before you explain why, you've already started at a disadvantage. It gave the no campaign the opportunity to just shake their heads and say 'this all looks terribly complicated'.
There's no denying it but many people voted no in order to punish the Lib Dems. As many Lib Dems are beginning to understand there is no anti-coalition vote, but an anti-Lib Dem vote. The referendum was inextricably bound up with the Liberal Democrats and as the election results show their brand is now thoroughly toxic, contaminating anything it touches.
The campaign, which was largely run by the Lib Dems, looked, felt, smelt and tasted Lib Dem even down to dodgy statistics and hectoring insistence that people HAD to vote for AV. This was a massive mistake allowing the Lib Dems to run the campaign who were responsible for setting the utterly mistaken tone, but then again who else wanted it?
- Win over the opposition don't entrench them:
Much time and effort was spent in the yes camp attempting to win people to the idea that AV would exclude the Tories from government. That's a bad reason to vote for AV as it a) ties a permanent change to temporary political conditions and b) hardly sounds like a more democratic system if it's designed to exclude a large, significant party.
Strategically it was a disaster though. Whilst the no campaign successful managed to persuade large numbers of Labour supporters to vote no, the yes campaign effectively spent time and energy convincing Tories that it was not in their interests to vote yes. You cannot win a majority whilst going out of your way to ensure that one in three voters will definitely vote against you.
- Focus on the public not your rivals:
YouGov asked was the no campaign dishonest?
YouGov asked was the yes campaign honest?
- It's a political argument not a technical one:
When yes campaigners threatened to use ASA or the courts or the electoral commission to get their way they inadvertently sent out the message that they couldn't win the political argument. Instead of making the positive case for a change that many of them never asked for they focused on whether the no campaign were right on the cost of the change, the fact the no campaign had more financial backing and legal manouvers.
People don't warm to campaigners who try to use the courts to silence their opponents, and they care even less for those who unsuccessfully try to do so.
- Make your case:
Despite protestations to the contrary the NO campaign made their case. It was simple and effective and took one or two sentences to articulate. The YES campaign, when they took time off from slating their opponents, made a meal out of explaining AV and tended towards a series of unsupported assertions (like AV dealing with overblown expenses or that the system would make MPs work harder).
A large proportion of the public were left unconvinced that they understood the case for AV, let alone whether they agreed with it or not. That time spent threatening the rival campaign with legal action could have been more usefully employed talking to the public about why this reform no one had been asking for was the right reform to adopt.
Most of all we deserved a referendum on a reform that millions have actually been calling for and that the public understand. The fight for proportional representation goes on but thankfully AV is now off the agenda for a generation.