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How to fight a referendum: Get the message right, and stick to it

This is the second of a five part series on how to win a referendum by William Norton, referendum agent for the successful NESNO campaign.

You’d be surprised how many people forget this, but elections are all about getting the most votes, and the idea therefore is to choose the campaign message which maximises your chance of winning.  That in turn means – and please concentrate, because this is the difficult part – gaining the support of people who don’t normally support you.

You have to select a campaign message which opens up soft areas of the other side’s potential supporters.  Your objective will be to frame the entire debate so that the referendum question is seen by the voters on your terms, and not your opponent’s.  Once you’ve decided on the winning line: keep to it and don’t waiver.

In the North East Referendum, the team running NESNO were entirely against the idea of regional assemblies altogether.  But we knew that if we ran with that as a campaign line it would frame the debate as being about whether regional government/devolution was a good idea in principle – and we knew we would lose such a debate.  That was the fight which the Yes Men wanted to have, and had prepared for.

So instead NESNO ran the line that people should vote No because a regional assembly will put up council tax and it wouldn’t be worth the money.  We had a secondary slogan “Politicians Talk, We Pay”, to ram home the message about useless and expensive talking-shops.  This is a message which does not rule out regional assemblies in principle, merely the form proposed in that particular referendum.  Our line framed the debate as being about cost, powers and politicians.  The Yes Men couldn’t answer that, and they kept changing their campaign argument (and so kept losing credibility).  NESNO won with 78%.

For a referendum on the Constitution-Treaty I would expect the winning No argument to be something like “we’ve already given up enough powers; it’s time for Europe to prove they can achieve something before we give them any more”.  I’m sure you can come up with something snappier – I haven’t researched or thought much about this – but you can see where I’m headed and why.  I want people who think the EU is a good idea to vote No anyway, but I want to be able to use lots of material about Brussels being a waste of time and money.  I’d expect a No Campaign using something like this message to win with 65-70%.

Why am I bothered about the views of EU-supporters?  Because I want the No side to win any referendum on the Constitution-Treaty, and to win it big.

Why am I apparently ignoring the views of EU-haters?  I’m not ignoring them, in fact I’m counting on them to get to the 65-70% level, but I would be leaving it to someone else to get out their vote.

(NB: don’t try this at home, kids: in a referendum the voter’s choice is either Yes, No or Don’t Vote so to an extent, and probably even more so in a European referendum, you can take your own core vote for granted.  This is precisely what you cannot do in a multi-party election where people can always find someone else to vote for.)

In the North East we also had a gimmick: an inflatable white elephant which we used to highlight the fact that a regional assembly would be, er, a white elephant.  You can’t get a more perfect illustration of a campaign message than that, but some commentators have been a bit sniffy about it.  But consider this: wherever I sent the white elephant on its tour round the region there was a significant jump in postal vote turnout.  So our gimmicky little elephant was a far more effective means of encouraging voter participation than a multi-million pound advertising campaign from the Electoral Commission.  But then, if you’ve ever dealt with the Electoral Commission, you might not be all that surprised.


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