So the Nos won the UK AV referendum comprehensively, with 68% of the vote, on a higher turnout than expected. Their campaign only seemed to gather momentum as time went by. This is a bitter blow to me, as I actually liked AV – while having reservations about proportional representation (PR). Now it will be considered politically toxic, probably forever. It doesn’t help that most people that voted No did not understand what they were voting against. In fact very few voters seem to have understood the system or its implications. It is highly frustrating that so many nonsense arguments were tolerated, and even encouraged by the media (turning back on hundreds of years of history; would cost £250m; gives some people but not others more than one vote; and so on). What went wrong?
There were clearly tactical errors by the Yes campaign. They failed to find compelling reasons to change. Their two favourites, making MPs work harder and ending safe seats, were very weak as AV would not make a huge difference. They took a tactical decision not to explain the system to voters, on the basis that it would turn them off. So they left that to the Nos, until finally they found a good way of communicating it (the Dan Snow broadcast with pub vs coffee shop). That broadcast proved that you can communicate new ideas if you apply enough thought and creativity to the task. There seemed to be too much time spent online, and not enough trying to get through to proper floating voters. It is more difficult to say whether the later idea to portray a Yes vote as an anti-Tory one was right; it certainly swayed some.
Why was the No campaign so effective? The use of the Tory machine clearly helped. The campaign was very well funded, so they were able to put much more, and much better produced literature. They weren’t even trying to win the argument, simply repeating a whole series of misleading sound-bites endlessly. But particularly striking was their use of of mainstream politicians. David Cameron and the Conservatives put on a strong, united front. And enough Labour politicians supported them to rally many traditional Labour supporters. By comparison, the Yes campaign had only the much weaker Lib Dem machine behind it, and tried to use non-politicians much more.
So the voters were not engaging with the arguments and trying to make sense of them, but taking a lead from people they trusted. Conservative supporters rallied to a very impressive extent behind the official Tory line (80-90% according to one poll). The newspapers may also have helped. If all these respectable people were reinforcing even the more spurious No arguments, people thought there must be something to them.
So people actually have quite a lot of respect for good old-fashioned politicians when it comes to political arguments. A year ago we thought that disillusion with politicians was ushering in a new politics. The surge for the Lib Dems after the election debates. The coalition with political enemies coming together in the national interest. But this new politics seems to have been a mirage. People are happier in the more familiar, tribal territory. They will follow the old politicians, who don’t seem to care what they say in support of causes they think are in their interest. The expenses scandal is completely forgotten now.
There also seems to be a deep conservatism amongst British voters. They are sceptics of almost any change, though they are quick enough to get used to changes when they happen. This is quite comical at times. I remember huge resistance to the London Eye being erected; now nobody would want it taken down. David Cameron’s and Boris Johnson’s appeal to “hundreds of years of history” to support FPTP is comical in the same vein, given how recent our democratic institutions actually are. The idea of a “progressive majority”, popular with some on the left, is a nonsense.
A further lesson is that we should be highly suspicious of referendums to decide constitutional changes. If people just follow the politicians, then shouldn’t just let the politicians decide? Independence for Scotland – yes to a referendum; electoral systems, European Union treaty changes – no.
So the old politics is back. What does that mean for progressives? And what does it mean for the Liberal Democrats? Topics for another day.