In any two horse political race, it is damned near impossible to poll less than 40% of the vote. You have to be spectacularly inept or obscenely unpopular to drop below this figure. For example, no Republican or Democrat Presidential candidate in recent US history has fallen this far. Even Barry Goldwater, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis – all famous for being electorally destroyed – managed to outscore the woeful YES percentage handsomely.
Yet somehow, the YES campaign managed to exceed even these extreme depths of campaigning ineptitude. It didn’t just lose. It was thrashed out of sight. It was humiliated. So appallingly bad has the YES vote been that any prospect of electoral reform has probably been obliterated for a generation.
The scale of incompetence by the YES campaign simply cannot be overstated. It is so vast and so staggering that it won’t merely fill column inches for days, if not weeks to come, it will be the subject of PhD theses for decades to come. It is unlikely that a wilful infiltration of the YES campaign by the NO side – at the most senior levels – could have resulted in a more calamitous result. The enormity of this professional political campaigning disaster is without parallel in modern British history.
All of this was predictable of course. In fact, it was pretty much predicted it here….last August. Most people on the YES side said the post was being overstated in its pessimism. If anything, it was far too optimistic. It did not say that the YES side would lose by more than a 2:1 margin.
The professional staff at the YES campaign should now apologise to their supporters. Don’t expect to see this happen, though. They are so producer-driven and blinkered and incapable of coalition-building that they will displace any blame to intangible, evil, external forces.
The preposterous Katie Ghose claims – even in her concession speech – that people were “shut out” of a national conversation about our democracy. How much more of a conversation do you want? Millions of pounds were spent, more media coverage was given to electoral reform than ever before and over 40 million people were entitled to vote. You get the feeling that Katie doesn’t really like democracy. In my lifetime, there will never be a bigger conversation about electoral reform. Following the conversation, only 6 million people agreed with Katie. And a fair number of them probably did so holding their nose.
This isn’t Katie’s fault, she insists. It is the fault of (a) the Murdoch empire or (b) the right-wing press more generally or (c) Conservative Party donors or (d) some other nebulous, ill-defined enemy of the people. No blame can be placed at the feet of Katie or the “movement” of democracy activists.
The truth is different.
The YES campaign was eminently winnable. But it ended up being run by readers of the Guardian for readers of the Guardian. Readers of this newspaper are about 1% of the voting electorate – and are also a statistically extreme group. Their views do not chime remotely with mainstream British opinion. There is no purist Guardian editorial proposition that could ever come close to winning a referendum in the UK.
From the outset, the YES campaign was all about the tiny coterie of people who feel strongly about electoral reform. The emphasis was on these people “having fun” and being invited to comedy evenings. In email after email from the YES campaign, the quirky behaviour of this “producer set” was celebrated and the “consumer set” ignored. So, some bunch of local activists who had written the letters Y, E and S in big letters on a beach were hailed as creative geniuses. Others were highlighted for running a particularly successful street stall. From the point of view of any observer, it was all about “them”(the micro-percentage of constitutional reform obsessives) never about “us” (the people). None of this self-indulgent madness won a single vote for the YES side, but it probably lost thousands.
Matthew Elliott’s NO2AV campaign took a totally different path. They realised who their base was and utilised them, but – quite brilliantly – reached out immediately to their key target electorate (essentially traditional Labour voters and supporters.) If Elliott had spent his first weeks in post writing to hard-core Tories about how marvellous and clever they were, he may have lost. He didn’t. He made it his number one aim to build a coalition with Labour and deployed his left-wing allies superbly. Ed Miliband was left looking like a weakened man who couldn’t control the more charismatic and compelling beasts in his party like John Reid. This ability to build a wider coalition from the outset, rather than retreat into the comfort zone of centre-right, free market politics was central to the NO campaign’s success.
In sharp contrast, John Sharkey and Katie Ghose failed to recruit or deploy a single, credible Conservative politician. In the absence of a senior Tory, they at least had Nigel Farage actively offering his assistance from the start of 2011. If there was a single, pro-YES populist politician who could chime perfectly with Mail, Telegraph and Sun readers, the UKIP leader was that man. Ghose and Sharkey should have ripped his arm off as he extended the hand of friendship.
Staggeringly, his offer of help was roundly ignored. Only with ten days to go was Farage prevailed upon by a desperate YES campaign to address some regional meetings. When he did, he was considered by most journalists present to be the star-turn.
I’m reliably informed that it took a furious letter from Farage’s office to the staggeringly complacent John Sharkey to trigger this involvement. I don’t know Nigel Farage particularly well, but I do know the Guardian and Independent are probably not his newspapers of choice. That meant he wasn’t “one of them”. The YES side wilfully ignored the one politician in the country that could appeal to the vote they desperately needed – radical, iconoclasts on the right-of-centre. This isn’t just incompetence, it’s an almost wilful determination to insist that the rest of the world thinks exactly as you do.
If there was one thing that nearly tipped me to voting NO (and I didn’t), it was the direct mail leaflet with the postal vote form. From recollection, the front page featured Joanna Lumley, Eddie Izzard, Tony Robinson, Colin Firth, Stephen Fry and other such celebrities. I may as well have been sent a leaflet saying “If you love the Guardian Arts supplement, then vote YES.” It showed a completely pitiful understanding of what most people – as opposed to most electoral reform professionals – care about.
This sort of mindset is reinforced by the entire YES branding. 10 hours after crushing defeat, the top item on the YES website was entitled “Are you ready to make history?”. It featured about a dozen hardened campaigners turning up in Trafalgar Square at 7am and unveiling a vast piece of purple bunting with the word “YES” on it. The video went on to say “We got our referendum and we say yes” (emphasis is mine). Note to wannabe communication professionals: if you use the first person possessive plural, make sure you aren’t using it to describe a handful of hardcore fanatics waving big pieces of fabric around at the crack of dawn. (I note now that website has been taken down – no doubt in some vain attempt to remove all evidence of the utter incompetence of those involved).
Possibly the nadir was the completely off piste broadcast showing hectoring “normal” voters wandering around with loud hailers shouting at supposed MPs for not working hard enough. As a slightly surreal opening scene to a new episode of Doctor Who, this might – just might – have worked.
As a piece of campaigning, it is perhaps the worst three minutes of material ever to be broadcast on primetime television.
John Sharkey is supposed to be a communications professional. Well, he might know what shade of green to put on the front of a box of washing powder, but he clearly has no idea about what to put on broadcast television in a political campaign. Never has a more confused, self-indulgent piece of rubbish made it to air in Britain. The YES campaign must have been “focus-grouping” themselves. And if you donated any cash – this is the sort of total garbage it was wasted on.
The lessons of all of this should be pretty clear. Never again allow a bunch of well-meaning, self-important Guardian readers to run a national campaign in which they talk to themselves and then blame their embarrassing naivety on external forces beyond their control.
And for anyone who cares about the future communications capabilities of the Liberal Democrats, that means making sure John Sharkey is kept as far away as possible!