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Dylan Sharpe: Looking back six months ago at Britain's forgotten referendum

Dylan Sharpe was Head of Press for the NO to AV campaign

It is the plebiscite that we dare not speak of. The Voldemort of democratic referenda. Party conference season came and went and - but for a brief thanks from Baroness Warsi - the vote on the Alternative Vote was treated as if the unloved child from a sham marriage. For Clegg and Miliband the reason is obvious: both found themselves on completely the wrong side of the majority of the British public, with the latter also realising he was on the wrong side of the majority of his party. For Cameron, the reasoning is less clear. The AV referendum was a feather in the cap of the Conservative Campaigns Team and helped swell the council vote, a victory for bi-partisan cooperation in the pursuit of a higher ideal, and a superb reason to laud it over his rival party leaders. But then when one is trying to keep a coalition together…

Credit is therefore due to Lewis Baston, Ken Ritchie and BiteBack Publishing for having the gumption to produce a book on Britain’s forgotten referendum; and for the speed with which it has landed on the shelves. Lewis (the principal author) is a former director of research at the Electoral Reform Society, but chose not to get involved in the AV vote judging it to be a poor alternative to proportional representation and sensing danger in the genesis of the referendum deal.

Baston’s history and the title – Don’t Take No for an Answer – suggest that this might be a book of hand-wringing bitterness; of a "nasty no campaign" and a "misled" public. But, thankfully, Lewis is as keen to take a brickbat to the Yes campaign as he is to explore the problem of convincing the public that  the voting system needs changing. It is also not simply a historical work. While the first four chapters chronicle the events that led up to the referendum, a retrospective look at the two AV campaigns and the final vote, he then swiftly moves onto a discussion of where electoral reform goes from here, with intriguing thoughts on Lords and local government voting reform.

All of which might make this sound like a book for electoral reform geeks, and in many ways it is. However there are plenty of observations on referenda in general that will be of interest to a wider audience. Fans of the Hannan-Carswell school of direct democracy will find the analysis of the importance of pitching, presenting and polling in referendum campaigns especially fascinating. There is also a good section on the way in which public opinion can alter over the duration of the contest. His "no change" principle in particular – which holds that the "Don’t Knows" in polls will inevitably switch to the status quo as D-day approaches – and the polling leads necessary to combat this movement will be of concern to those who believe the only obstruction to leaving the European Union is the Conservative Whips office.

That being said, there are some small problems with Don’t Take No. Baston’s belief that electoral reform is not yet dead in Britain is highly debatable – it will be a brave administration that dares re-introduce it onto the agenda in the midst of foreign wars, domestic riots and economic crises. Similarly, I feel he never really deals with the intensely partisan motivations of those who support electoral reform – something which the Yes campaign was also reluctant to have explored. I also take issue with the entire chapter entitled "Why AV was always going to lose the referendum". While much of his logic is sound, as someone who was sat – as late as February this year – in a meeting of the senior NO to AV team in which we debated ways to revive our campaign in the face of sustained friendly fire, solid "yes" poll leads and being massively outspent, I can’t help but feel hindsight has played a significant part in this particular thesis.

Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that the AV referendum has in large part de-mystified the role and potential of referenda in Britain. With votes on membership of the EU and Scottish Independence looming, it is perfectly plausible that Don’t Take No for an Answer could become required reading for politicos before too long.

Don’t Take No For An Answer is by Lewis Baston and Ken Ritchie and is published by BiteBack Publishing.


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