Today
Sat 17 April 2021

Richard Robinson revisits the propaganda and personnel which heavily prefigured the Vote Leave campaign and all that has followed

Home Secretary Priti Patel’s proposal to change the UK’s mayoral voting system has struck the national consciousness like electoral chloroform. The scant outrage generated by such a self-interested move is reminiscent of the national shrug that greeted the Alternative Vote (AV) Referendum in 2011. Yet even the most uninspiring attempts at electoral reform can have unexpectedly dire consequences, as AV’s example comprehensively demonstrates.

Of the three national referendums in the UK’s history, that on AV is the neglected middle child. Sandwiched between the first in 1975, which tied Britain firmly to Europe, and the third in 2016, which tied Britain’s shoelaces firmly together, the AV Referendum in 2011 could be characterised as a miserable little enterprise. 

Herein lies the irony: in 2011 the NO2AV campaign issued repeated warnings about bigots and extremists gaining influence over British politics; their empowerment in 2016 was partially a consequence of Vote Leave’s actions. 

And in many respects, of course, it absolutely was: there were only 19.1 million votes cast, representing a paltry 42% of the electorate, compared to turnouts of 64% in 1975 and 72% in 2016. AV was comprehensively rejected, with 67.9% of voters choosing to keep the First Past the Post (FPTP) system. 

However, while the issue failed to spark public imagination, the NO2AV campaign lit a fire under many of the key actors and tactics that would go on to clinch victory for Brexit in 2016. As the tenth anniversary of the AV Referendum approaches, its political legacy today appears far more significant than it did in 2011.


Invoking the NHS

The referendum was promised as part of the 2010 Coalition Agreement. It was a Conservative concession to the Liberal Democrats, who had campaigned on changing the electoral system. Their manifesto had actually proposed switching to proportional representation, with Labour the only party to have backed the non-proportional AV system. This was inconvenient for Nick Clegg, AV’s chief cheerleader in 2011, since he was on record rejecting Labour’s suggestion as a “miserable little compromise” in 2009.

As with the Leave campaign, the NO2AV campaign transcended traditional party lines, with almost all Conservatives and a sizeable chunk of Labour uniting against the proposed reform. This deviation from party politics emphasises why shaping the narrative is fundamental in referendums: people do not necessarily have a pre-existing side or, as was the case with AV, pre-existing knowledge of the issue. 

In the absence of a strong message from its pro-AV counterpart Yes to Fairer Votes, NO2AV dictated the terms of the referendum debate. It turned a simple idea about ranking candidates by preference – a version of which is used to elect mayors across the country – into an expensive, anti-democratic gift to extremists.

There was also the Clegg-shaped spectre haunting AV-advocates. His dismissive quote adorned anti-AV literature, but still more toxic was his reputation after his broken tuition-fee pledge. On top of this, NO2AV was simply better organised, as evidenced by the number of voter mailouts sent at the expense of the Electoral Commission. Yes to Fairer Votes made 8,551,948 deliveries, costing £1,459,894, which paled in comparison to the 40,043,360 made by NO2AV, totalling £6,687,686.

It was in the content of NO2AV’s messaging that the nascent Brexit playbook took shape. It deployed scare tactics, arguing that the alternative vote would empower extremist parties like the BNP. This brazenly ignored the fact that BNP leader Nick Griffin was himself opposed to AV, but, as with Vote Leave’s cynical claim that Turkey and the Balkan countries were about to join the EU, reality was secondary to sentiment.

With its “one person, one vote” slogan NO2AV positioned itself as being on the side of democracy. Much as “vote Leave, take back control” exaggerated the extent to which the EU undercut Britain’s parliamentary sovereignty, “one person, one vote” misrepresented the AV system to argue that it undermined Britain’s democratic principles. NO2AV also engaged in anti-elitist rhetoric, albeit not to the same extent as Vote Leave, by asserting that AV would lead to more hung parliaments and shady backroom deals.

Finally, it plucked a cost out of thin air and invoked the NHS. Vote Leave’s infamous £350 million bus-based bluster was preceded by a NO2AV billboard campaign featuring a photo of a sick baby with the text “She needs a new cardiac facility NOT an alternative voting system”. Through this and similarly contentious adverts, it spread the message that AV would cost £250 million to implement. The figure was dubious at best, but it could not be refuted without being repeated, which played into NO2AV’s hands.


Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliott

This false equivalency between political costs and healthcare pre-dated the AV Referendum. It was used to great effect in the North East Devolution Referendum in 2004, when Dominic Cummings first caused a stir testing his vision in County Durham. On this occasion, it was as strategic advisor for the North East Says No (NESNO) campaign, during which he combined cost-based criticisms with crude publicity stunts (including a giant white elephant) in a way that would set a template for future elections.

While Cummings was absent from the NO2AV campaign, the personnel cross-over between that and the Brexit campaign is striking. At least ten those who donated £10,000 or more to NO2AV subsequently made substantial contributions to Brexit, including Jonathan Wood (£100,000 to NO2AV, £500,000 to Brexit) and the Bamford digger dynasty (£25,000 and £1.3 million). 

The largest donor of all, Peter Cruddas, gave £400,000 to NO2AV and £1.5 million to Vote Leave. He was co-treasurer of both campaigns, but it was NO2AV that helped establish him in politics: only a month after the referendum, in June 2011, he was appointed co-treasurer of the Conservative Party.

At the forefront of both campaigns was Matthew Elliott, the co-founder of the Taxpayers’ Alliance. His prowess and experience as director of the NO2AV campaign undoubtedly contributed to his political capital, giving him the necessary support to found and run Vote Leave in 2015.

Lower-profile than Elliott was William Norton, who appears to be the principal through-line between the NESNO, NO2AV and Leave campaigns. After working as a strategist in and literally writing the book on the 2004 NESNO campaign, Norton co-founded the NO2AV campaign and acted as its responsible person. It was he, in fact, who spearheaded NO2AV’s vastly superior voter mailout. 

After NO2AV, he joined the senior management team of Vote Leave, although not before co-founding Business for Britain with Elliott and Daniel Hodson in 2013. This was the Eurosceptic campaign group that published a 1,032-page report in 2015, subtitled “How Britain Would Gain Influence and Prosper Outside an Unreformed EU”.

Norton’s brash self-confidence after the NO2AV campaign can be seen in March 2012, when he was asked by the Scottish Affairs Committee whether being the “yes” or “no” choice was an advantage in a referendum. He responded: “This will sound pompous, but I would like to think I could win with either.”

Chair: “So you only side with campaigns that you think will win. Is that how it works?”

Norton: “It is how it works out.”

The evil chuckle that presumably followed has sadly been omitted from the record. But Norton was proved right: having twice fought to defend the status quo, he would go on to help upend it in 2016.

NO2AV’s resounding victory bestowed political clout on key campaigners and convinced donors of the benefits of funding a single-issue campaign. Moreover, it provided a test-run for the fact-free, emotive claims perpetuated by Vote Leave. And herein lies the irony: in 2011 the NO2AV campaign issued repeated warnings about bigots and extremists gaining influence over British politics; their empowerment in 2016 was partially a consequence of Vote Leave’s actions. 

Perhaps, then, the real threat to the country’s political health was not the alternative vote, but rather the tactics and individuals at the heart of the campaign against it.

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