AV: Yes and No campaigns find common ground at last

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg Arguments between Nick Clegg and David Cameron over AV are thought to be a turn-off for voters

Whisper it quietly but both sides in the referendum campaign on the alternative vote (AV) have suddenly discovered a modest patch of common ground.

After weeks of hard campaigning, acrimonious exchanges and the almost daily trading of celebrities, academics and statistics, those saying Yes and No to changing the way we elect MPs have finally found something they can agree on: they both want Liberal Democrat ministers to shut up.

In recent days, the referendum has become less about the advantages and disadvantages of the alternative vote and more a story of coalition infighting: Nick Clegg accusing David Cameron of being part of a right-wing clique defending the indefensible; Chris Huhne accusing George Osborne of untruths over the costs of AV; Simon Hughes accusing Baroness Warsi of inventing facts.

At the same time, broader coalition spats have broken out over internships, manifestos and police commissioners.

Lack of substance

Now you could imagine that both sides of the referendum campaign might think all this was rather good stuff.

Nothing like a heated row to get an arcane debate about electoral change on to the front pages; a good row to stiffen the spines of apathetic voters and energise grassroots supporters; a bit of rough and tumble to bring a campaign to life and alert the nation that in just over a week the way their MPs are elected is up for grabs.

And yes, it might be boring but it is important, just look at all these politicians getting hot under the collar about it.

Well, no. In fact, these coalition rows are making both the Yes and No campaigns increasingly nervous.

Lord Reid speaks at No campaign press conference The No campaign is emphasising its Labour supporters, such as Lord Reid (right)

This is because the referendum has suddenly become a coalition story: a narrative driven by questions about the nature of the infighting, how much of the anger is genuine and how much synthetic, and what impact it could all have on the relationship between the Lib Dems and Conservatives long after the referendum is over.

Both sides are obviously concerned that the debate has moved so far away from arguments about the substance of keeping the current voting system or adopting the alternative vote.

But they are more concerned that the coalition row is crowding out their attempts to appeal to the crucial swing voters who they believe will determine the result of this referendum: namely, Labour supporters.

Mixed messages

Polling on both sides suggests that most Conservative supporters are likely to vote No and most Liberal Democrat supporters will vote Yes. But Labour supporters are thought to be divided.

Both the Yes and No camps are trying to appeal to these voters but have been struggling to get their messages out there while the Lib Dems are going hammer and tongs with their Conservative coalition partners.

Last week, for example, the No campaign fielded the likes of John Prescott, Caroline Flint and Hazel Blears - but with little media coverage to show for it.

Vince Cable speaks at Yes campaign event The Yes campaign hopes Labour voters will be swayed by Vince Cable

The No campaign want to try to counter accusations that they are largely a Conservative front by emphasising their Labour supporters (they claim to have the backing of just over half of Labour MPs, two thirds of Labour peers, a thousand Labour councillors and so on).

And in so doing, they are sending a message to Labour supporters that it is OK to vote No.

"Our fear is that Labour voters will see Vince Cable saying vote Yes, and no-one from Labour saying vote No, and they will take their cue from Vince," said one No campaigner.

Equally, some in the Yes campaign believe that Lib Dem ministers are too unpopular to sell their pro-change message and want them to get out of the way.

"If the Lib Dems would just shut up, we would have a much better chance of winning this," said one Yes campaigner.

"When you hear people on the radio threatening legal action, that's not helpful."

The fear in the Yes team is that the coalition rows help the No campaign by muddying the water even further, adding to confusion when they are striving for a clear, simple pro-change message.

So as the referendum campaign heads into the final straight, there will be new Yes campaign posters aimed at Labour voters, telling them that this referendum is bigger than the coalition and more important; and a No campaign bus packed with Labour MPs and peers driving around Westminster for the cameras, proclaiming Vote Labour, Vote No.

And both sides will, in the meantime, be hoping for a welcome period of silence from the coalition partners.

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