The question the ‘Yes to AV’ campaign wouldn’t answer: “What is AV?”

by Dr Alison Smith

So it’s official.  The most googled  ‘what is’ question this year was ‘What is AV?’  And, according to a new blog post from a ‘Yes to AV’ campaign insider, James Graham, the Yes campaign made a strategic, but ultimately fatal, decision not to answer this question. The ‘Yes’ campaign was, of course, spectacularly unsuccessful, with almost 70% of the British public choosing to keep the first past the post system during a referendum in May 2011.

Changing Britain’s electoral system was always going to be a tough sell.  The Conservatives wanted no change. Labour was divided on the issue.  Even the Lib Dems, often thought of as the drivers behind electoral reform, were lukewarm, favouring the single transferrable vote system.  Although electoral reform briefly caught the voters’ interest in May 2010, when the General Election produced yet another disproportionate result, public attention soon focussed on the rapidly deteriorating economy.

Moreover, the ‘No to AV’ campaign had snappy messages.  ‘AV will be costly’.  ‘AV will be complex and unfair’.  ‘AV is a politician’s fix’.  So why did the ‘Yes to AV’ campaign decide not to respond with these accusations?   As James Graham, the Web and Social Media Manager explains,‘Yes to AV’ head strategists believed that answering even the simplest explanations risked causing confusion. Graham lobbied strongly for a different approach, but was over-ruled.  In his blog, he wrote that ‘this was a problem that we needed to solve rather than one we could afford to sidestep.’

If strictly applying textbook political campaigning principles, the ‘Yes to AV’ strategists were right.  The received wisdom is simple: ignore negative attacks when the answer is longer than the accusation.  This strategy is effective in election campaigns, where multiple issues compete and the agenda moves quickly.  But ‘Yes to AV’ was a single-issue campaign, and its proponents had almost a year to make their case.  If the ‘Yes to AV’ strategists weren’t prepared to sell their issue, they had reason to be in the debate at all.

As yesterday’s Google results show, the public was ready and willing to give its attention to the pros and cons of electoral system change.  But people needed information in order to make a judgement.  For years to come, political campaigners will use the ‘Yes to AV’ campaign as a cautionary tale of what happens when you don’t at least try to win your argument.


The full text of James Graham’s blog is available here.