Yes to AV, car sales and the political brain

If the Yes campaign for the referendum was a car what kind of car would it be? I have a hunch it might be a 2000 vintage Skoda: making steady but unspectacular progress, hampered by an image problem and at risk from more aggressive and agile competitors. Of course in the early 2000s, the Volkswagen group transformed the fortunes of the sturdy Slovak auto with an imaginative re-brand. Does the Yes campaign need to re-think the way it gets its message across? Here are three reasons why I think it might have to:

‘But it’s not red, it’s fast!’

I chew my fist each time I see a Yes campaigner complain that, “the No campaign is wrong to claim that AV will lead to (insert ‘No’ attack message of choice).” Why give a free airing to the opposition’s criticism of your product by repeating it? What does it say about the dynamic of the campaign that you are mostly talking about their messages?

If you think more people will buy your car because it goes faster than the other one, don’t spend half your time explaining why people shouldn’t care about the colour!

The Yes campaign needs to find a way of switching the narrative of the campaign on to its own key messages and to reconnect with the anger about out of touch MPs. It’s time to get the No campaign complaining about what ‘Yes’ is saying: “Duck houses and moat cleaning? Vote No to let them get away with it!”

‘You know it’s a great product but actually we’re not so sure’

The Yes campaign has a big problem at the heart of its campaign. It seems that few of its own people really believe in the product they are trying to sell. Go along to any ‘Yes’ meeting and you will hear ‘Yes’ advocates complain that what they really want is a properly proportional voting system. “We know AV is a bit rubbish but it’s the only change on offer.”

It seems there are three possible solutions to this. One is to convince your own people that AV is a product worth buying. Another is to put the campaign in the hands of true believers (as in, lock the sceptics out of public meetings or don’t have meetings where the public express a view). A third is to make a virtue of necessity and be honest about AVs short comings: “if ‘No’ wins, nothing will ever change.”

‘Change is just too hard’

Smart friends of mine get frustrated when people tell them AV is too complicated. Here’s the news: it is complicated. We know this because the No campaign is using it as a key message and that’s because their polling tells them it’s what people think.

The ballot paper isn’t complicated and what you do with it polling booth isn’t complicated. But that’s not what people mean when they say it is complicated.

What is difficult to grasp is how your vote connects to the outcome. I put an X against Labour but the Tories got more so they win – I understand that. But how will being able to vote 1 for the Greens make a difference to the way the country is run?

And don’t talk to me about ending wasted votes. Remember that it’s only supporters of the least popular party in a minority of marginal seats who have ever even considered tactical voting.

It seems to me that the Yes campaign needs to be more aggressive and more emotive in its appeal. If the campaign is a mass popular movement of political outsiders fighting a bunch of insider dinosaurs then it needs to do more to show that face.

Drew Westen’s insights should be required reading for Yes campaigners. And, incidentally, anyone running for election this May ought to take a look at his book The Political Brain too. It’s not enough to have a record for hard work and solid dependability, you have to sell it right too. If you don’t buy into Skoda, just ask Saab.

Read more by or more about , , , , or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • In view of the fact that we are reassured that the no campaign are misleading the public about the cost of AV (and that there will be no expensive electronic counting machines), could anyone tell me how long it will take to count the votes under AV? Obviously it will take longer than FPTP (unless someone gets over 50% on the first ballot) but how much longer on average?

    I would also be interested to know whether there is an opportunity for a recount at every stage (i.e. every time votes are reallocated) and what happens if there is a tie for last place at any stage. I can’t find this information anywhere.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 6th Apr '11 - 1:28pm

    At last some sense!

    It isn’t that complicated -and used in lots of places
    Its’ fairer than FPTP – the overall result is more proportional and it stops someone who is unpopular with a majority of voters in a constituency being elected.
    And it maintains the link between consituencies and all MPs – which is actually something that people value.
    You don’t chose electoral systems based on cost.

    There is no such thing as the perfect electoral system – AV is best and only achievable compromise within the UK for the forseeable future.

    And hide Nick Clegg away for the next month.

  • @Nigel

    I saw an analysis by I think a user on politicalbetting about that topic. Good luck finding it though. He didn’t seem to think it would take that long but I’m damned if I can remember the details! Sorry I couldn’t be of more help.

  • Spot on Ed. The Yes2AV are doing their best to lose the election by doing No2AV’s work for them!


  • AV does produce some counterintuitive outcomes.
    For example suppose there are 3 parties – blue, red and tartan and the six combinations of first and second preferences are…
    20 for Blue 1 and Red 2
    80 for Blue 1 and Tartan 2
    30 for Tartan 1 and Blue 2
    35 for Tartan 1 and Red 2
    55 for Red 1 and Tartan 2
    15 for Red 1 and Blue 2
    So at the 1st stage Blue gets 100, Tartan gets 65, Red gets 70. Tartan is eliminated and its votes transfer to its second preferences.
    At the second stage Blue gets 130, Red gets 105 so Blue wins.

    Now suppose there is a further shift of opinion in favour of Blue and 10 voters that put Red as their first preference and Blue as their second preference promote Blue to their first preference…
    Now the votes are
    30 for Blue 1 and Red 2
    80 for Blue 1 and Tartan 2
    30 for Tartan 1 and Blue 2
    35 for Tartan 1 and Red 2
    55 for Red 1 and Tartan 2
    5 for Red 1 and Blue 2
    At the first stage Blue gets 110, Tartan gets 65 and Red gets 60. Red is eliminated and its votes transfer…
    But now at the second stage Blue gets 115, Tartan gets 120. Despite the shift of opinion in favour of Blue, Blue loses and Tartan wins!
    Perversely here, Red voters have removed Blue by voting Blue!

    AV is a washed-out compromise. True PR is much more sensible!

  • I sent an email back in response to one of the Yes Campaign email’s (no doubt to a black hole) saying that they really need to stop the attack on the No campaign’s funding and get on and sell the product.

    When you need to play “the man” instead of “the ball” you have a problem.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 6th Apr '11 - 4:13pm


    By being used in different places – i meant to look wider than assemblies – AV is very common in elections for all sorts of positions such as school governors, works councils etc. etc and 2 of the 3 parties use it for their leadership elections. I have often seen groups of people select it as a method for selecting from more than 2 people without any prompting.

    “The Electoral Reform Society regards AV as the best voting system when a single position is being elected.”

    Well I’m afraid that is what most people think they are doing when they select their MP – they want to have someone who represents them not a collective. You may wish to move away from this – but it is not an argument that you are likely to win for a very long time. Perhaps one of the problems with the European Parliament is that in the UK people do not feel that they have someone who is there MEP – I don’t see any great popularity for that particular electoral system in the UK I’m afraid.

    “We should not be legitimizing any single-member systems.” This is just sheer arrogance – it is for the electorate to legitimize their electoral systems not political parties – and their I think lies the root of your problem.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 6th Apr '11 - 4:23pm


    “It’s not more proportional” – I daresay that you can construct theoretical exxamples where it isn’t, but in every case which I’ve seen where UK General Elections are remodelled using AV the overall result has been more proportional than FPTP.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 6th Apr '11 - 4:33pm

    AV 2011
    To put it another way if we had an election system between electoral characteristics based on STV in multi characteristic seats my guess is that link between consituencies and single MPs would probably be the clear leader and that fairness/proportionality would only get elected in one of the later rounds. So that is why I think that AV is a rather good compromise.

  • @toryboysnevergrowup

    The ERS used to have a piece on their website stating that AV could actually prove less proportional. They have removed it, they haven’t stated their opinion has changed….

  • toryboysnevergrowup 6th Apr '11 - 6:32pm

    Steve Way

    I sure it can in some circumstances depending on what you mean by proportional – I suspect the case where this may happen is when a party is particularly unpopular among those who do not give it its first preferences – so that a higher than usual proportion of lower preferences go to support another party (think 1997 and 2002 when the Tories were unpopular with non Tory voters). But is proportionality to be measured in relation to first preferences – and not take account of negative intentions as well?

  • David Gould 7th Apr '11 - 12:46am

    AV is undoubtedly more proportional as it removes the flaw in FPTP that suppresses smaller parties. It might take a while for voters to shift from old allegiances but they inevitably will over time.

    This is why the Tories and some Labour hate it: they’re going to have real competition.

    The disproportional myth got replicated all over the place, not least by Lord Jenkins who was desperate to sell Blair STV and so deliberately made AV look bad. The original suggestion disproportional results came from dodgy pollsters in the 1990s.

    If you remember in 1992, pollsters predicted a Labour win or hung parliament. The Tories got in with a small majority. The reasons the pollsters got it so wrong remain a trade secret but it’s likely they were cutting too many corners and making too many assumptions.

    In 1997, every pollster but one also overestimated Labour’s share of the vote by 5%, including ICM. It is therefore reasonable to believe that ICM also overestimated Labour’s share of the vote in their AV poll. If the share was a mere 1% overestimated, AV would have been shown to be more proportional.

    The same 1997 polling methods showed STV to be very disproportional which should have been a total giveaway. But Jenkins ignored that and just plucked out the AV result to make it look bad.

    Note also the PDF says “These results are simulations and could not take account of the political dynamics which would come into play with a new voting system.”

    Clearly, AV in 1992 would not have led to a Tory majority. As such, there would have been much less anti-Tory sentiment in 1997. This is another reason to believe that AV is consistently more proportional than FPTP.

  • Old Codger Chris 7th Apr '11 - 9:32am

    @toryboys never grow up
    “That is what most people think they are doing when they select their MP – they want to have someone who represents them not a collective”.
    I’m sure that’s factually incorrect. Most people want a particular party to win the most seats and govern the country -or they don’t care over-much as long as the party they detest doesn’t win.

    @stephen J
    “I want PR, and I want a single member constituency system”.
    And I want the cheapest meat and eggs and for all farming to be as humane as possible. Can’t be done, I’m afraid.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 7th Apr '11 - 9:38am

    I think all those arguing for STV and breaking the link between the single member and hos constituents would do well to think on how such a proposal might be treated by the proponents of FPTP and how it would go down with the electorate. I don’t see many people saying why don’t we have the same electoral system as we use for the European Parliament. They should also reflect that it is for the electorate to decide what electoral system they want.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 7th Apr '11 - 9:53am

    Old Codger Chris

    Of course under STV they would have a collection of MPs from different parties representing them as individuals. I’m fairly certain that most people want a single person who they can call their MP who they can blame/praise and take problems to and represents their town/area. If what you are saying is true most people would be asking for some sort of party list system, which does not appear to be the case. There must be some polling/research somewhere as to what people believe are the good/bad features of electoral systems – which has been performed without asking leading questions.

    You are right that Stephen J cannot want everything that he wants (who can) – so he like others will have to find something that provides the best compromise. Unlike NIck I think AV is a pretty good compromise – others e.g AV2010 appear to believe that giving up on single member constituencies is a good thing – I see very limietd support for this from the electorate in practice.

  • Old Codger Chris 7th Apr '11 - 10:17am


    I agree it would be valuable to see some polling research. I’ve no idea how many people would welcome multi-member representation and how many would hate it. MPs should, of course, represent all their constituents regardless of how they voted, and the best of them do that.

    I just think that most voters’ chief concern is which party will win nationally.

    Actually I dislike STV but not because of its multi-member constituencies. The link between votes cast and the candidate who squeezes through on the tenth count or whatever, is just too tenuous except for political junkies or maths graduates. I would favour a version of FPTP plus top-up as the least worst option.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 7th Apr '11 - 11:48am

    “I would favour a version of FPTP plus top-up as the least worst option.”

    You might – but i see little appetite for this elsewhere. My guess is that party lists would not be too popular in the current environment – don’t we elect more than enough party animals at present without increasing their number?

    AV as well as IMHO being a rather sensible compromise seems to be the only one on offer at present.

  • Old Codger Chris 7th Apr '11 - 2:02pm

    I agree there’s a problem with party lists. Even an Open List would, I think, have to permit parties the option of a suggested order of preference (the party leader may be one of the candidates!) which voters opting for that party could either accept or vote to override.

    Has anyone researched a one-third top-up in which a single top-up MP (no lists) elected by d’Hondt method would be added to 2 adjacent FPTP constituencies? Just a thought.

  • Ed Maxfield 7th Apr '11 - 2:55pm

    Thanks to all for commenting.

    Rupert, you are probably right – I maybe over played it to make the point. But even in those 400 seats where the Lib Dem vote is potentially suppressed most people wont be given that message because so many are safe seats where the winning party barely bothers to campaign.

    David Gould raises an interesting point when he says that AV is more proportional because it lifts the ‘squeeze cap’ on smaller parties. I wonder what lessons are to be learned from Australia where the Democrats have all but died out and it has reverted to a two party system with a few independents. Might the same happen here once the tactical vote message is lost as a tool for the Lib Dems?

    Anyway, as some have rightly pointed out, my article was really about the messaging around the campaign rather than AV itself. My fear is that as the No campaign has the resources of the political and media establishment behind it, Yes needs to be further ahead at this point than it is. I hope I am wrong but I would expect a Nick-Clegg-is-a-Nazi style tabloid s**t storm in the last week of the campaign attacking AV – is the Yes campaign ready for it?

  • toryboysnevergrowup 7th Apr '11 - 3:23pm

    “Has anyone researched a one-third top-up in which a single top-up MP (no lists) elected by d’Hondt method would be added to 2 adjacent FPTP constituencies? ”

    I just about understand what this means, but if you think that those in favour of FPTP are having fun portraying AV as complicated just guess what fun they would have with this. Just imagine the games that could be played in grouping constituecies together.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 7th Apr '11 - 3:29pm


    Perhaps the best way to deal with AV being tied to Clegg’s toxic coat tails is to market it as a “rather nice and sensible compromise”.

  • @Ed

    I hope I am wrong but I would expect a Nick-Clegg-is-a-Nazi style tabloid s**t storm in the last week of the campaign attacking AV

    It’s going to be worse than that – it will simply be that the No campaign will associate him any way they can with the Yes camp – I’m not saying its right but I’m afraid that he has put himself in that position and the No camp are going to turn the heat up.

    I believe tactically Clegg should not have stayed in the background as this appeared politically weak – but there again his argument for AV on Newsnight this week was simply dreadful – does he genuinely think that having AV would have stopped the expenses problems?

    Although I’m still in the no camp there has been some awful half truths nonsense peddled by both sides up to now – we can only hope the quality of the debate improves here on in, but I’m not holding my breath.

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Apr '11 - 11:29pm

    What A Scot is showing is that if we have a Left, Right and Centre party candidate, if the Centre party candidate comes third under FPTP, the second preferences will distribute evenly, so whoever from Left and Right would win under FPTP still wins. Howerver, if the Centre party comes second under FPTP, most of the second preferences from the third placed party will transfer to the Centre, hence the Centre may move ahead and win.

    Tactical voting is not entirely eliminated, as a third-placed Centre candidate can appeal to supporters of the weaker of Left and Right on the lines “Your favoured canddiate will never get enough votes to win. If you vote first choice for that favoured candidate, I will get eliminated, and the one you least like will win, whereas if you put me as your first choice, when the candidate you really like but who can’t win is eliminated, I will get the transfers and I will then beat the candidate you most dislike”. The Centre candidate can even add “Don’t worry, if it doesn’t work and I still come third, your vote will transfer to your favoured candidate anyway”.

    The issue then is that if a few supporters of Left decide to vote first preference Right, or vice-versa, the result is to push Left below Centre in first preferences, and thus Centre gets the benefit.

  • Old Codger Chris 8th Apr '11 - 2:42pm


    “If you think that those in favour of FPTP are having fun portraying AV as complicated just guess what fun they would have with this. Just imagine the games that could be played in grouping constituecies together”.

    Of course a referendum on any form of PR would be opposed partly because it adds complexity – you’re right to point out that the No2AV campaign’s attempt to make a big deal of AV’s alleged complexity (when there’s nothing complex about it) proves this.

    But if a simple top-up system were proposed, especially if party lists could be avoided, the PR camp would be able to avoid having to explain STV (just take a look at the recommended procedure for an STV count published by the Electoral Reform Society).

    Consituency boundaries cause controversy under all electoral systems – the Boundaries Committee could start at Lands End (where the land is “thin”) and work its way along, pairing adjacent consituencies along the way. I just don’t know how proportional (or not) such a system would be.

    Under the quickly-buried Jenkins proposals top-ups would have only consisted of one seat in many areas and two seats in others, although Jenkins’s top-up boundaries look eccentric to me.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • David Le Grice
    Why the hell do we only get two questions? We got more than half the seats and votes that the Tories got, if they get a whopping six then we should get at least...
  • Peter Davies
    @Paul Yes. Most organised areas do tallying....
  • Peter Davies
    "even in London we have no councillors (and so no councillor tithes) in 19 of the 32 Boroughs" it's not really 'even'. London Boroughs have the highest proporti...
  • Paul Culloty
    Is there much tradition of "tallying" in UK constituencies - generally, when an Irish GE or local election occurs, the boxes in the constituency (each one accou...
  • Ruth Bright
    Are there rules on hugs at polling stations? On "my" polling station in East Hants hugged a nun who taught me 40 years ago, a friend whose daughter's graduat...