5 May 2011

AV - why the yes campaign deserves to lose

Later today people across the UK will decide whether they want to change the voting system for Westminster elections. And it looks like they will decisively vote to keep the current first past the post system.

This is despite the YES campaign leading in the polls for most of the campaign - until the last few weeks in fact - and it having the far stronger messages.

So why has the YES campaign so spectacularly crashed and burned? In my view there are two fundamental reasons. The first is the strategic decision to hold the referendum on local election polling day, particularly the polling day that sees the majority of shire districts up for election. These areas are the Tory heartlands with relatively high turnouts of elderly voters - those least likely to vote YES.

I remember talking to a senior Lib Dem official as the bill was pinging between the Lords and the Commons wondering why the party simply didn't call Labour's bluff and delay the referendum until the Autumn where a stand alone referendum would have been more winnable. I was told this would have meant internal coalition issues in terms of delivering Tory votes for the bill and that anyway the advice was that a joint council election and referendum was more winnable due to the likelihood of gaining Labour voters in the mets. That was a strategic mistake that made the task of winning for yes more difficult.

The second mistake was tactical. Despite what you might believe from the interweb and NO campaign, the YES campaign is in fact dominated by Labour - not the Lib Dems. (It was the main reason for Clegg taking a back seat and Mili minor trying to take over). So when the NO campaign used prominent Labour figures to go negative, the YES campaign didn't effectively rebut - mainly because the Labour figures wanted to avoid an internal row.

The YES campaign should have immediately rebutted the NO's assertion of the £250m cost of AV and gone on the offensive against some of the Labour dinosaurs in the no campaign - whose expenses were somewhat questionable - by way of illustration that the campaign could not be trusted. But once the YES team allowed the £250m to become established it was game over.

And this was all before the YES campaign fell apart with Chris Huhne's hissy fit over the NO campaign tactics. All it showed - as every good Lib Dem campaigner knows - was he was rattled and encouraged the Noes to ratchet up the pressure even more.

All in all it's a textbook case of how not to do it. And it's a shame as any alternative electoral reform is now probably impossible as a result.

I will be voting yes.

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