Nick Clegg’s irrelevance to loss of AV vote

How important was Nick Clegg to the loss of the referendum to reform the electoral system? Very important if you believe this anonymous source quoted recently in The Guardian (hat-tip to James Graham):

Last night a senior source in the campaign for the alternative vote admitted they knew “very early on” that there was no chance of winning the referendum and that Clegg had become part of the problem: “Every time Clegg spoke about AV our polling numbers went into free-fall. We knew from very early on, before the new year, that we couldn’t win, our message wasn’t getting through and the Liberal Democrats in the whole were worse than useless. Clegg was toxic and everything [Chris] Huhne did in criticising the Tories just put the attention on the political spat – made it a Clegg versus Cameron affair. Utterly unwinnable.”

However, the polling evidence suggests Nick Clegg was the least of the Yes campaign’s problems. ComRes has just released figures showing its research of the reasons why those who intended to vote ‘no’ were against AV — and it shows how relatively unimportant was the role of the Lib Dem leader:

  • The fact that Nick Clegg supports AV:

  • Relevant to some/large extent 22%; Not at all relevant 78%

  • I don’t fully understand the implications of AV:

  • Relevant to some/large extent 46%; Not at all relevant 53%

  • I support change but AV is not the right alternative:

  • Relevant to some/large extent 54%; Not at all relevant 46%

  • I don’t see the need for change:

  • Relevant to some/large extent 67%; Not at all relevant 33%

As ComRes’s chairman Andrew Hawkins notes:

“This table shows that Nick Clegg wasn’t the problem; rather it was the failure of the Yes campaign to establish first the need for change at all, and secondly that AV was the right alternative.”

Incidentally, for all the fanfare of the No campaign’s having ‘ruthlessly followed best practice in market research’ (to quote ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie), it suggests they too over-estimated how relevant voters would regard Nick Clegg’s support.

Bottom line in a referendum: reformers have to make a compelling case for change, especially in a nation with an in-built conservative majority such as the UK. In neither of the UK’s two referendums has the status quo been overturned.

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22 Comments

  • Hmm… I agree with some of this, i.e. that the YES campaign was unbelievably pants. But people are notorious for stating in polls that negative campaigning doesn’t sway them, but in reality pollsters and campaigning experts know full well that negative and personal techniques are incredibly effective – that’s why they’re used so often.

    Are the people who say Nick Clegg’s support of AV played no part in their vote being honest, or are they just giving what they consider to be the responsible answer – like the multitude of people who tell pollsters ‘yes of course I voted at the last election, and I’m 10/10 certain to vote at the next one’. People don’t want to admit to being politically apathetic and they don’t want to admit to voting in a referendum based on a personal like/dislike of a particular individual.

    I agree that the YES campaign didn’t demonstrate the need for change and comprehensively failed to explain what was good about AV. But that presupposes that people vote rationally based on the issue at hand and all the evidence suggests they don’t. Tony Blair in 1997 could probably have won a referendum on abolishing the NHS if he’d wanted to, whereas Gordon Brown in 2010 could probably have lost a referendum on giving toys to children.

    I hate to agree with Tim Montgomerie, but in this case he’s bang on the money. The NO campaign did proper market research and found that their most effective strategy was to focus on Nick Clegg. They also found that the most effective strategy for YES would be to focus on David Cameron. NO followed the evidence and ran a negative, dishonest and personal campaign using Nick Clegg as their main asset. YES ignored the evidence and ran a woolly campaign with a bunch of celebrities claiming AV would make MPs work harder (without explaining why, for the benefit of non-political-geeks, AKA normal people). We all know the result.

    I’m not saying that YES would’ve won if we’d focussed on the ‘Vote YES to kick Cameron’ message, because I suspect ‘Vote NO to kick Clegg’ would still have been more potent (and I say this as a supporter of Nick, but the reality is that his image is pretty toxic at the moment). But if we’d gone for Cameron instead of staying positive I’d bet a lot of money that the defeat would’ve been far narrower.

    In retrospect, this was the wrong fight at the wrong time, and did us double damage by hitting us at the local elections too. We should’ve negotiated a firm commitment to HoL reform instead, rather than settling for a ‘proposal’ on HoL and a referendum on AV. But then hindsight is 20/20. I know there were a few people who said as much at the time – and kudos to them for making the right call.

    But the other lesson to take away from this is that we should make more use of market research – we need to learn how to pitch ourselves and our policies better and focus groups are an excellent tool in that respect. Too often – both in opposition and now in government – our spokespeople in media interviews sound like they’re talking to Lib Dem conference rather than ordinary voters.

  • Do they break it down further? 22% of 67% is 15%, which is not negligible (obviously some were only some extent, not large), especially as you would expect Nick Clegg to be a big positive influence on the YES vote (being its main advocate). Were there figures for those who voted yes? I mean he could have swung it on this data over what was expected, no?

  • I think the main problem with Nick Clegg in the AV Campaign was that as he is currently unpopular he was not able to actively campaign and make a difference like Cameron did. for the no side. Imagine the difference the Clegg of last year could have made to the Yes campaign. He would have been able to help explain the problems with FPTP and why AV was a small but significant improvement but instead it was ‘oh that is nasty Clegg whatever he says must be untrue/self motivated/ I hate anything he likes’.

  • Catherine is spot on, and that post is a blast of minty fresh air.

    I am someone who believes in the greater use of referendums – though I have to admit that the AV referendum has rather given me some pause for thought. I struggle to find any one single positive about the AV refrendum. It was terrible wall-to-wall. Catherine’s post is astute in pointing out that the issue inextricably became linked to party politics. The NO campaign were clearly desperate to put Nick Clegg on the ballot and they did a good job. Interestingly, given that NO was (ostensibly) a cross-party campaign, the Conservatives seem to have been relaxed about Nick being a target. Do they perhaps think that the Coalition can not be damaged by Clegg getting hit, or that Clegg is so damaged, more damage does not matter?

    What really was the purpose of a referendum on the subject? What is the point of over-riding representative democracy, then having a campaign that sees things through the prism of party-politics? What is the point of a referendum if it becomes a hobby-horse. For that matter, what is the point when the public don’t really seem that bothered? For that matter, why no referendum on boundary changes?

    Catherine is right – the YES campaign missed a trick. The Conservative Party made very clear that Cameron’s leadership would likely be challenged in the event of a Yes vote, though it is hardly a good argument for AV. It is worth pointing out here that as critical as I am of the NO campaign making their arguments about Clegg rather than voting systems, the attempts to pin the blame on Ed M by some of the YES voters on here are no better. Ed M, who I am no fan of, read the situation well for me.

    Where I would slightly disagree with Catherine is that I don’t think that the HoL reforms would do any better. It would (perhaps not totally unreasonably) just be presented as ‘more politics.’ I don’t know if any research has been done on it, but the AV referendum (as far as it indicates anything) did seem to me to suggest that constitutional issues, rightly or wrongly, don’t seem to register outside of the professional talkboard writers. At times, both YES and NO seemed a bit to be ramming the issue down the public’s throat. Of course, the Conservative party has a strong interest in sending Nick into an argument with 700 peers and leaving him on his own to fight it out.

    It should not be the case that party leaders are impacted upon by referendums, but the stark truth is that Cameron looks much stronger now and Nick weaker. But the debate we need now is not about the leaders, but is there any future for referendums – this one was an eye-opener.

    Peter1919 – You talk about self-motivation. I thought that one of the stronger arguments against AV was the real risk of a third paty kingmaker being locked in. I don’t think it was unreasonable of the NO campaign to point out that there was an argument on self-interest. Granted, the motivation might have been wrong, but the argument stood up. Certainly it was no more reachy than YES arguments about ending safe seats, which talked about possible outcomes rather than voting systems per se.

  • “Bottom line in a referendum: reformers have to make a compelling case for change”

    hooray! I kept saying this, the onus was on the yes campaign to sell the damn thing, they didn’t.

  • Face facts: AV was the wrong solution to the right problem. Yes failed to persuade people there was even a problem in the first place, but then how could Labour say there was a problem with a system which gifted them total power in 2005 with just 35% of the vote.

    While the majority of people vote for two parties that benefit from an unproportional system, of course they are going to want to keep it.

  • It was clear from the start that the failure to highlight the merits of AV as a voting system meant that the YES campaign would be based on rabble-rousing and irrelevance. I just feel so sad that a golden opportunity was so wasted!

  • Francis McGonigal 16th May '11 - 9:23am

    I am a Labour and pro-AV supporter. I believe the Labour YES to AV leaflets were far more effective that the general YES campaign and the idea of challenging the Tory hegemony was one of the best arguments in winning over Labour voters although this may have lost support on the right.
    The YES campaign should have concentrated on the power AV gave voters over the political elite, not the nonsense about making MPs “work harder”.

  • I’m sad to say that we Lib Dems have become obsessed with constitutional reform that Joe Public couldnt give a toss about and have suffered as a result of our navel gazing.

    It’s also difficult to sell AV as keeping MPs more honest when we have just performed a volte face on tuition fees and sold the NHS down the river ( in the publics eyes)

    Time for a reality check and a return to doing what we say we’ll do, but it will be a long climb back

  • I spolied my AV ballot. Nothing to do the yes campaign not explaining the message, I knew exactly what AV was.

    AV can be even less proportional the FPTP and it can disadvantage the smaller parties even more (could the Greens have won a seat under AV?).

    People need to be given meaningful choices, I refuse to chose between a kick in the teeth and a kick in the balls.

  • @ RednDead

    “we Lib Dems have become obsessed with constitutional reform that Joe Public couldnt give a toss about”

    The fact that the general public doesn’t seem care about (1) ending up with a government they didn’t vote for for most of the last fifty years (2) being badly governed as a result, doesn’t make it any less important. It just means there is a much greater task than we ever thought ahead of us in communicating these facts.

  • @Redndead

    “It’s also difficult to sell AV as keeping MPs more honest when we have just performed a volte face on tuition fees and sold the NHS down the river”

    I whole heartedly agree. And I also think if the “judgement” of David Laws was released before the election, then AV would have been defeated even further. (Call me a cynic but I wouldn’t be surprised if thats why the report took so long)
    Nick Clegg promised a new kind of politics based on Keeping promises and good old fashioned Honesty, He assured the public that “Plural Politics” could work.
    In my opinion, Nick Clegg has failed miserably on those points, That’s why the Public rejected AV.

    Liberal Democrats still want to champion electoral reform, claiming it to make politics more honest, and yet here they are with the Judgement on Laws, Who claimed to be whiter than white during the expenses scandal, now been found to have been guilty of “serious” breeches in his expenses claims.

    Part of the reform Liberal Democrats were shouting about, was the “right to recall” any MP who has been found to be in breech of the rules.

    Liberal Democrats should show the public that they are serious in there aspirations for reform and call for a by-election in Yeovil.

    The public will never trust the party again, until they stop with the broken promises, dishonesty and double standards when it comes to their own MP’s actions. While this is going on, The party has no hope for arguing the case for reform

  • nestormakhno 16th May '11 - 11:59am

    The biggest reason for the no vote is the fact that the British public have now seen how coalition government works and the vast majority do not like it. The prospect of more fudged governments caused by a voting system which strikes many as intrinsically unfair (ie the third placed candidate can win) made them come to their senses and acknowledge that AV is a rotten system leading to rotten, unnacountable government. If this vote had come up before the current spate of colaborationism by your party it may well have won, as the promise of new politics was alluring. Now it just means more of this mess.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 16th May '11 - 1:44pm

    “This table shows that Nick Clegg wasn’t the problem; rather it was the failure of the Yes campaign to establish first the need for change at all, and secondly that AV was the right alternative.”

    And you don’t think the first failure was anthing to do with Clegg rushing to hold the referendum at the first opportunity and at the same time as the local elections, or that the second was because he and other LibDems didn’t support express much positive support for AV and just saw it as a miserable little compromise. Then add in the 22% who opposed it because they didn’t like Nick Clegg and the general ineptness of the Yes campaign as well as trying to appease all elements of their coalition ratehr than putting forward a positive case for AV – it is not hard to see why the result was such a disaster, and has effectively put electoral reform off the agenda for the next 20 years.

    It was also interesting reading Mandleson’s book how Danny Alexander asked during the negotiations after the election whether Labour was prepared to introduce AV without a referendum – which I’m afraid really just indicates to me how the interest of the current LIbDem leadership was in power for themselves rather than promoting democracy.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 16th May '11 - 2:06pm

    There is also an issue of LibDems thinking for many years that they were the only ones who had a legitimate interest in electoral reforms and that their solution was the best one and that the only one which could be taken seriously to the point of almost complete anorakdom. Rather than trying to establish a coalition and compromise on the issue with those who belived in elctoral reform in other parties. Personally, I believe the link between MPs and constituencies is important and I don’t think the use of party list systems to a any great extent would be very healthy – but I can also see that the overall result of most general elections isn’t a fair relfection of what the electorate wanted – I’m afraid the mantra coming from the LibDems on electoral reform did little to convince me that your motivation was purely tribal.

    There is a lot to be said for how the constitutional commission in Scotland established the ground rules for how the Scottish Parliament should work – so that there was a good understanding of how it would function before the referendum actually took place. Perhaps there is a need for something similar in respect of UK Constitutional Reform – rather than the piecemeal/crisis driven way we go at things at present.

  • Tony Dawson 16th May '11 - 3:55pm

    “a senior source in the campaign for the alternative vote admitted they knew “very early on” that there was no chance of winning the referendum and that Clegg had become part of the problem:”

    But weren’t the ‘senior sources’ in the YES campaign seconded from Nick Clegg’s private office? Or Chris Huhne’s ? Might someone else write, honestly, that the YES campaign had no chance because of the people trying to (sic) run the YES campaign?

    It is totally clear that the case for change was NEVER made out honestly, consistently and often enough. All this ‘Make your MP work harder’ rubbish rang bells with the electorate but why should anyone accept it as a reason for to vote for a system they did not really understand and had no real idea why it would achieve these ‘laudable’ (sic) aims? (as well as not being true in the case of about 200 very hard working MPs of different parties)

    Surely, any sensible inquest should look into how there was such a massive polarisation between those handful of places where ‘YES’ won handsomely and ‘the rest’ where by and large there was a consistent 2:1 to 3:1 vote against? SOMEONE was doing something right, and it wasn’t the national YES campaign.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 16th May '11 - 6:25pm

    “Surely, any sensible inquest should look into how there was such a massive polarisation between those handful of places where ‘YES’ won handsomely and ‘the rest’ where by and large there was a consistent 2:1 to 3:1 vote against? ”

    Yes – the short answer is you need to do more than preach to converted intellectuals.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th May '11 - 12:19am

    Redndead

    I’m sad to say that we Lib Dems have become obsessed with constitutional reform that Joe Public couldnt give a toss about and have suffered as a result of our navel gazing.

    But isn’t it daft to moan about the government we have and then dismiss something that would mean we might not have had that government as an “irrelevance”? Even the “miserable little compromise” of AV would have reduced the number of Tories last time and increased the number of LibDem MPs to the point where a Labour-LibDem coalition was viable. This would have made Nick Clegg’s negotiating power MUCH greater. So where’s the sense in saying “It’s terrible, we have a bad Tory government because Nick Clegg can’t or won’t negotiate harder” and simultaneously saying “constitutional reform is an irrelevance”.

    If one looks at Ireland, one find that STV there had enabled the people to show what they think of their politicians in this year’s election by electing a lot of independent TDs. Well, by voting against AV we’ve voted to make sure we can’t do similar here, because the reason FPTP generally delivers all power to one party is that it leads to the “don’t split the vote” line that scuppers the chances of candidates from outside the big parties.

  • Old Codger Chris 17th May '11 - 7:24pm

    @matt
    “Part of the reform Liberal Democrats were shouting about, was the “right to recall” any MP who has been found to be in breech of the rules. Liberal Democrats should show the public that they are serious in there aspirations for reform and call for a by-election in Yeovil”.

    Hear Hear! Labour MPs were sent to prison for claiming much less than £40k.

  • Barry George 17th May '11 - 9:58pm

    ComRes has just released figures showing its research of the reasons why those who intended to vote ‘no’ were against AV — and it shows how relatively unimportant was the role of the Lib Dem leader:

    •The fact that Nick Clegg supports AV:

    Relevant to some/large extent 22%; Not at all relevant 78%

    I am not sure you can dismiss the 22% as ‘relatively unimportant’….

    That is more than 1 out of every 5 voters if the survey is correct !

    You’re telling us that 1 out of every 5 voters who voted NO , did so not because of anything to do with the specifics of AV, But were influenced to vote NO because of Nick Clegg !

    I don’t think that is anything the party should be proud of, in fact it is something to be rather upset about…

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