The No campaign began with instincts about how to defend First Past The Post but with the limited funding they enjoyed at the start of the campaign they tested those instincts to destruction until they knew that they had copper-bottomed messages that would move votes. It sounds the obvious thing to do but it wasn’t the approach pursued at the last general election when the Big Society was floated as the Conservative Party’s main message and it hadn’t even be tested.
The No campaign’s three themes were the three Cs: Cost, Complexity and Clegg. All were propagated using online techniques praised by PoliticsHome's Paul Waugh.
Cost. At a time of recession voters were allergic to any unnecessary expenditure. No2AV calculated that changing the electoral system would cost £250 million and in hard-hitting ads they said that there were better ways of spending that money. Pensions. Body armour for soldiers. Life support systems for premature babies.
The second C was complexity. First Past The Post was simple, it was One Person, One Vote. The person who comes second or third shouldn’t win. The point was made in a horse race ad from the independent No campaign and in a child’s sport day video from the Tory Party’s No campaign. These ads were scripted by George Eustice MP, a veteran of the successful ‘No to the Euro’ campaign and a daily participant in the No campaign’s morning meetings. The Yes campaign protested that the intelligence of the British people was being insulted but when, 48 hours before polling, interviewing David Cameron, John Humphrys got confused about how AV worked, the No’s campaign’s point was made.
The third C was Clegg. I’ll return back to this theme later.
A fourth argument – that AV was only used in three other countries in the world – was also potent. Margaret Beckett deployed some of these arguments as early as November 2010 in the House of Commons and in an article for The Guardian.
The pundits scoffed at these No campaign tactics. They accused No of trivialising an incredibly important issue of voting reform. Matthew Elliott was accused of “knowing the price of everything and value of nothing”. Was he, some asked, relying too much on the tactics of his hugely successful TaxPayers’ Alliance. Some of the attacks on him were personal, notably from Quentin Letts in a Daily Mail sketch. I can’t say I didn’t share the worries about the campaign’s direction. Elliott didn’t panic. Nor did the two ex-Labour MPs who ran the campaign with him; Joan Ryan and Jane Kennedy. They trusted the copper-bottomed research that (1) had been prepared for him by Lynton Crosby, (2) subsequently double tested by Andrew Cooper, the former Head of Populus who has since become Head of Strategy for the Prime Minister inside Downing Street, and (3) was fine-tuned by BBM, the strategy group established by Alan Barnard and John Braggins (key members of the teams behind Labour’s 1997 and 2001 victories).
Lesser individuals would have crumbled before Fleet Street’s pens but the battle-tested Labour figures in the No campaign and Cameron’s Political Secretary, Stephen Gilbert, gave Elliott the reassurance he needed to stay on course. They were right to do so. The cost arguments against AV moved voters more than any of the other 33 messages that were tested.