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The Alternative Vote and the curse of the Yes campaign

Richard Moss | 09:58 UK time, Thursday, 14 April 2011

Eddie Izzard

The Yes campaign has used celebrities like Eddie Izzard to campaign for the Alternative Vote.

Once upon a time, the Yes campaign started with high hopes and encouraging polling data.

But then as the weeks wore on, that good will and support began to evaporate.

They became dogged by concerns about costs. Voters were confused about what was on offer.

The end result - a huge defeat in a referendum.

That was seven years ago, and the vote was about whether to have an elected regional assembly in the North East.

But for supporters of the Alternative Vote, I can see some worrying parallels with the current vote about changes to the electoral system.

Here's five:

Inflatable white elephant

The No campaign's inflatable white elephant made life very difficult for supporters of a North East regional assembly.

1) In 2004, the assembly on offer to voters had such weak powers, it was hard to sell it to the public. The No campaign used an inflatable white elephant to sum up that feeling. The Yes campaign admitted it wasn't all they wanted it to be, but insisted it was a staging post to something better.

In 2011, many within the Yes campaign would prefer a purer Proportional Representation system and admit the Alternative Vote isn't all they'd want it to be, but insist it could be a staging post to something better.

2) In 2004, the No campaign attacked the idea of an assembly as a costly distraction from the real problems facing people. They talked about the need for an expensive new building to house it even though the Yes campaign say there wouldn't need to be one.

In 2011, the No campaign attacks the idea of the Alternative Vote as a costly distraction from the real problems facing people. They talk about the need for expensive vote counting machines even though the Yes campaign say they wouldn't be needed.

3) In 2004, the Yes campaign used celebrities to try and sell their case. The No campaign used politicans and business people.

In 2011, the Yes campaign has been using celebrities to sell their case. The No campaign have used politicians and business people.

4) In 2004, the Yes campaign was so tied into the political establishment, it struggled to turn its fire on the politicians of the time to persuade voters the current system was broken.

In 2011, the Yes campaigners appear to be so tied into the political establishment that they have struggled to turn their fire on the politicians of the time to persuade voters the current system is broken.

5) In 2004, the Yes campaign started out with a poll lead, but as soon as the public began to think in more detail about the issue, that reversed.

In 2011, the Yes campaign began with a lead, but recent polling suggests public opinion might be moving the other way.

I am sure the Yes campaigners would take issue with some of those points.

I suspect public hostility to the Alternative Vote is not anywhere near as venomous as the opposition to the regional assembly became. Polling is uneven too, and there are still three weeks of campaigning to go.

But in the North East at least, I sense a similar atmosphere.

It's purely anecdotal, but this week I watched a debate at Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in Darlington.

When they came to vote, the students rejected the Alternative Vote by more than three-to-one - and this amongst an audience that you might think would be receptive to change.

But then the curse for most yes campaigns in referendums is the challenge selling change to a public who often feel safer sticking to the status quo.

There is a key difference with 2004 though. Seven years ago John Prescott was humiliated as voters rejected the regional assembly he'd championed.

This time though he's on the side of the No campaign. He'll be in the North East this week to outline his opposition.

The question is will he be on the winning or losing side this time round?

* The Politics Show will be debating the merits and demerits of the Alternative Vote and First Past the Post on 17 April at 2pm.


  • Comment number 1.

    I don't know where you get the idea that the Yes campaign is tied to the political establishment. If it's coming across that way, it can only be the result of poor journalism. This is literally this first time in British history that the people have had a chance to have a say on the way democracy is conducted. A yes vote represents a move away from the system that MPs have always chosen, because it gives them job security on tiny minority votes, and which gave us broken promises and the expenses scandal.

    The big party money defending big party interests is all on the No side, supported almost entirely by big Conservative Party donors. George Osbourne himself said in the Daily Mail yesterday that he wants to use a no vote to shut down all debate on political reform for the foreseeable future, and keep things as they are. A yes vote is about taking back some power for the people and making all our MPs a little more accountable.

  • Comment number 2.

    Hello James,

    Thanks for your comment. I was trying to be deliberately provocative, and I accept that the No campaign is tied into the Establishment.

    But inevitably, the people staffing both campaigns at the higher levels tend to be from political parties. Lib Dems and Labour in the Yes camp, Conservatives and Labour in the No camp.

    I just think it's harder to attack the political class when you are effectively part of it. I think it can make you pull your punches.

    My experience of the regional assembly referendum is that the No Campaign won hands down because it tapped into the disillusion with and mistrust of politicians. I remain to be convinced the Yes campaign has achieved the same kinf of traction as yet.


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