The success of ‘Vote Labour, Vote No’ wasn’t just crucial to the outcome of this campaign. It could have important implications for the future of electoral reform in Britain and for the possibility of future LibLab alliances.
A section of the Labour movement has long believed that there is an anti-Tory majority in Britain and that this so-called “progressive majority” is disenfranchised by First Past The Post. This section is small but loud and has given the impression that it was the dominant and growing voice within Labour. The Labour No campaign has proven that it isn’t. We end the No2AV campaign with a majority of Labour MPs publicly declared as supporters of First Past The Post (or, at least, as opponents of AV). Those who haven’t nailed their colours to the mast are also thought to be ‘No’ but out of respect for Ed Miliband stayed silent. The campaign has shown that the mainstream of the Labour Party does not want to change the electoral system for Westminster. In thirteen years of government Labour didn’t even attempt electoral reform. Moreover, the collapse of the Liberal Democrats – particularly in urban Britain, Scotland and the north of England – gives Labour MPs extra hope that they can win outright at the next election, without needing any Lib Dem help. Ed Miliband’s options for the future are also limited. With so many members of his party opposed to AV, let alone PR, he will face internal resistance to any big offers to a future leader of the Liberal Democrats. Key members of his inner team including his chief whip (Winterton) and his spokespeople for health (John Healey), education (Andy Burnham (silently)) and defence (Jim Murphy) stood with David Blunkett, Margaret Beckett, John Prescott and John Reid in the No2AV campaign. As did Tony Lloyd, Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party. On the eve of polling day the Labour leader appeared to lock and bolt the door to electoral reform for a generation, saying he did not support anything other than AV as an alternative to First Past The Post.
John Prescott launches an anti-Clegg poster as part of a regional Labour No2AV tour.
It wasn’t always obvious that the No campaign could win the internal debate in Labour. Ed Miliband was wise enough to realise that this was not a Clause IV moment for him. His party was too divided to make this a defining issue of his early leadership. He campaigned for AV but hardly energetically. He gave his party a genuinely free vote. No understood, however, that many Labour members would loyally follow the example of the party leader and this instinct would be encouraged by Cameron’s support for FPTP. It was vital to establish quickly and conclusively that it was okay for Labour voters to oppose AV. Appointing the likes of Lord Prescott as patrons of No2AV was vital in this task. No serious Labour member believes that the former Deputy PM has anything but the party’s interests as his priority. If he was against AV it was okay for them to be against it too.
Former Labour MP Jane Kennedy and Matthew Elliott.
The hard slog of ‘winning the Labour party’ first so that Labour voters could be won later was carried out by former Labour MPs Jane Kennedy (who took on Militant in the 1980s) and Joan Ryan (pictured on right). For weeks on end they almost lived in the atrium of Portcullis House – the place in the parliamentary estate where MPs, journalists and researchers mingle. The campaign that resulted in a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party opposing AV was won over cappuccino and chocolate muffins. The campaign was also fought in the country. “Whilst Joan Ryan was setting up Labour No to AV and building the national campaign as the deputy campaign director – particularly working out the core vote/swing vote strategy – Jane Kennedy spoke at about two hundred meetings of constituency Labour parties. Some gatherings were of just a dozen activists. Others involved fifty or sixty. Similar meetings were held in many Conservative Associations but whereas the Tory events were largely about how to defeat AV the CLP events were debates. Activists had to be won over. When votes did take place over 80% tended to vote against change. Regional rallies were another important part of the Labour No campaign. Many were fronted by John Prescott and were designed to reach trusted regional and local media.
Towards the end of the campaign there were anticipated signs that David Cameron’s high profile (and successful) attempts to galvanise the Tory vote were confusing some Labour voters. As a result the Tories abandoned the airwaves and focused on their (invisible) ground operations. John Reid adopted a higher profile and David Blunkett fronted No2AV’s final TV broadcast.
I wouldn’t be doing justice to Ryan, Kennedy and the other Labour campaigners if I gave the impression that they were somehow focused on the red vote. They played a full part in the whole campaign and when Matthew Elliott was desperately trying to raise money – in the lean period before Cameron realised what was at stake – they led much of the work on messaging. At the very beginning of the campaign there was a Tory No campaign and a Labour No campaign. This didn’t last. The Chinese walls came down and, in fact, an internal walls in the office was literally demolished to create an open plan war room. The Labour activist who famously turned up at the Crewe and Nantwich by-election in top hat and tails to play class war against Cameron was on the phone to local Tory Chairmen, advising on how they could best motivate their members to campaign on this issue. Ryan and Elliott started sharing a desk to direct operations. This was a massive contrast with the Yes campaign. Despite all the talk of a progressive majority the two pro-AV operations – one focusing on the Labour vote and the other on Lib Dems - always remained distinct. They met just twice a week. The Labour and Tory halves of the official No campaign operated cheek by jowl, 24/7.