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Lib Dem recriminations continue over defeat in the AV referendum

By Jonathan Isaby
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LIBERAL-DEMOCRATS The latest issue of Liberator, a journal written by, and aimed at, the Centre-Left wing of the Liberal Democrats (they generally despise the Orange Bookers), suggests that the recriminations are far from over inside sections of the party over the loss of the AV referendum last month.

An editorial in the magazine is especially scathing about the contributions of some of the party's most senior names to the Yes to AV campaign.

Opening by suggesting that "winning a referendum on electoral reform was always a tall order... once the Liberal Democrats – the main proponents of a ‘yes’ vote – lost their moral authority in the tuition fees debacle last autumn", it goes straight for their leader's jugular:

"The party had to campaign in effect leaderless, because Nick Clegg evoked such hostility among voters that he was judged a liability to the campaign... Clegg did make periodic interventions, presumably being unable to restrain himself, but each served to remind the public why they have lost trust in him."

It then goes on to attack other senior Lib Dems for "some startling tactical errors":

"Tim Farron, the titular head of the party’s ‘yes’ campaign, made a speech about Thatcherism having been “organised wickedness” and akin to “slavery”. In most circumstances, these remarks would be entirely unexceptionable. Here, they served to suggest that AV would prevent the election of a majority Tory government again, and so spurred Tories to go out and vote ‘no’."

"Then there was Chris Huhne’s carefully publicised outburst at a cabinet meeting, including the bizarre threat to take legal action against some Tory cabinet ministers over the admittedly vile content of ‘no’ campaign leaflets. This move would have been hard to sustain in court and merely gave the impression of politicians fighting like ferrets in a sack about something that left the public largely unmoved."

Elsewhere in the publication, James Graham, a member of the Liberal Democrat Federal Executive and social media manager for the Yes campaign, lifts the lid on exactly how badly the whole Yes campaign was organised (or not, as the case may be).

It's worth reading his piece in full, but here are some of his killer points:

  • "The campaign... became rigidly hierarchical and obsessed with secrecy."
  • "Research in any meaningful sense ceased... we were reliant on people’s hunches to muddle us through. A frustrated research team found itself with nothing to do."
  • "The advice we got from veterans of the 2004 North East referendum was that celebrities were of limited value. Despite this, we ran a campaign that was obsessed not merely with celebrities but with ones who appealed only to the educated middle classes."
  • "In recognition of the very real problem we faced in explaining AV to a broadly disinterested public, we adopted the guiding principle of “show don’t tell” over the summer. By mid-November, that became “don’t tell”."

So can we expect the Lib Dem recriminations over the resounding defeat over AV to continue?

Having spoken to a number of Lib Dem MPs and activists from all wings of the party this week, I found a consensus view that it will not be a running sore, with most claiming that they never believed they were never going to be able to win the vote anyway.

"The biggest cock-up was the timing: we were never going to be able to win a referendum that coincided with local elections," said one MP from Northern England, who went on to pass the buck for the defeat across the Commons chamber:  "The real fault for the defeat lies with Ed Miliband and Labour for not delivering enough support for AV."

"We would have needed to have been two to one ahead in the polling at the end of March in order to win, especially when people held their views on the matter so lightly," conceded another. "Another problem, frankly, was that most Liberal Democrats didn't really want the AV system. A victory would have been most important for short term morale rather than long term change and most of us did our grieving before polling day."

Meanwhile, a colleague of his - who said the referendum would be "a painful memory" rather than a running sore - turned his fire on the Conservatives. "A number of us resented the Tories for supporting such a dishonest No campaign - although we partly made up for that over the NHS this week," he said. "At the end of the day we do still have to show that coalition government works."

Another who also took exception to the way the No Campaign put its messages across claimed that the lesson for Lib Dems was that they would "have to be nastier" in their campaigning in future - something that I know a number of Conservatives will find difficult to believe to be possible. 

Most of those I have spoken to agreed that the AV referendum will not be the subject of recriminations at the party conference in September. One senior activist from the Orange Book wing of the party said: "People can jump up and down, but we had a good bash at it and lost. It would be foolish to continue rowing about it - although that won't necessarily stop my fellow Liberal Democrats." 

And whilst there is a consensus that the Lib Dems should press ahead with support for other constitutional changes such as promoting an elected House of Lords and introducing recall ballots, there is a difference of opinion over the longer term future for the debate over electoral reform.

"It's dead and buried for a generation, maybe two," said one of the MPs to whom I spoke, representing the views of most. But another insisted: "It remains the case that the current system isn't working and electoral reform will rear its head again in another way."

I wouldn't be so sure about that.

> Click here to read Tim Montgomerie's full review of the AV campaign