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How to fight a referendum: Get the structure right, and enforce it

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

A referendum is not a party political contest.  To reach the 51% winning line a successful campaign will require the support of people who normally vote for different parties (or not at all).  Too close an identification with one party risks damaging your ability to win.

On the other hand, it is still an election, and to physically fight it will require the skills and manpower only really found in political parties.  The designated official Yes and No Campaigns are entitled to a free mailshot, TV broadcast slots and some public money but the Electoral Commission can only designate for both sides or neither, and it will only designate an organisation that can demonstrate it is competent to present its case, and is best representative of that viewpoint.  Being able to draw on the support of political parties makes a more compelling application for designated status.

How to solve this conundrum?  Well you don’t do it by assembling a Big Tent or a Broad Church.  All that happens then is that lots of little groups who don’t really have much in common end up having a veto over the campaign, and it falls apart.

In the North East Referendum, NESNO (North East Says No) was designated to represent the No side in preference to the BNP and a local independent politician.

  • Although it grew out of Business For Sterling, NESNO was actually a brand new organisation.  It carried no baggage, and its five directors were all businessmen with strong links to different areas of the North East.
  • Both the Conservative Party and UKIP agreed to support NESNO’s application, but neither had any formal involvement in its running.  They had their own separate Agents who reported into me as overall Referendum Agent for NESNO.
  • Competition between Conservatives and UKIP was avoided by simply not trying to merge them into a new organisation.  I knew from the 2004 Euro elections that Anti-Regional Assembly parties had received an aggregate 42% of the vote.  All I wanted them to do was go away, get out their vote from their supporters according to a plan agreed with me, and leave NESNO to run a media operation to pull across the other 9% for victory from soft Labour and Lib Dem voters.
  • The Yes Campaign on the other hand, wanted Labour and Lib Dem activists to sign up with them in one team.  But these parties were squabbling over the credit for any victory, and following the nasty Hartlepool by-election were not on speaking terms.  The result was that the Yes Men were thrashed by 22% to 78%.

The moral is clear: a successful referendum campaign requires a bespoke one-off specialist team in strong overall control, with the political parties in a secondary role (and seen to be so).  That applies also to any pressure group which predates the referendum: everyone has an agenda and an ego and everyone carries baggage.  The political advantages of a referendum win lie after the vote has been held, and that is when they should be argued over.  Until then, the priority is to win.  To have the best chance of success the Designated Campaign should be a body without a past and without a future beyond the vote itself.  No one owns this referendum.


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