The chaotic Yes to AV campaign

Few campaign plans survive contact with the enemy. Yes to AV has proved no exception.

Dull? You think the AV referendum campaign is dull? It's only been going for a fortnight and we've already had vile smears, fasict slurs, Oscar winners, prime ministers, dinosaurs, bishops and even a brief sighting of Nick Clegg.

I have to fess up. When not blogging on here, I do a turn with the No to AV campaign as a consultant. It's a bit like being a soldier returning from the Vietnam war. People point at you and sneer, "That's him, the £250m ad guy. He's been doing disgusting things to babies and soldiers."

All I can say in mitigation is: you haven't been there. Up country. Into the heart of darkness of the fight for alternative votes.

The atrocities the other side commits go unreported. The fake website calling the No finance director a Nazi. The photoshopped image of John Prescott and Margaret Beckett next to Nick Griffin. The miniature dinosaurs being sent round to caricature Labour MPs and trade union leaders.

Oh, they know how to fight dirty, those Yes boys and girls. The saintly clergy and the fragrant Helena Bonham Carter telling us sweetly, "AV is as easy as one, two, three." It's all a smokescreen, I tell you, a front for the world's press. Over at Yes HQ they'd as soon stab you in the ballots as look at you.

Actually, I have to confess to some respect for the opposition. Their discipline is ruthless: "A small change that'll make a big difference", "MPs will have to work harder to win". Their rapid and efficient deployment as a "people's campaign". Oh, they got the jump on us all right; with polling leads last year at times as high as 25 per cent.

But few campaign plans survive contact with the enemy, and Yes has proved no exception. There's a strong strand of moral superiority running through the crusade for "fairer votes", and on the first few occasions they have run into an opposing viewpoint, they have faltered.

Their first mistake was the release of their "celebrity backers". They certainly got a lot of publicity: too much publicity. If you're trying to make yourself look like an earthy, grass-roots movement, squeezing out a press release in between the Oscar nomination and the acceptance speech isn't the smartest way of going about it. Nor is it the best idea to select as a frontman and woman for your "people's campaign" two actors who have become synonymous with the king and queen of England.

The second, and far more serious, mistake was their chaotic response to the publication of the £250m referendum expense. First they tried to dismiss it, then they went hysterical over it and finally, and most ludicrously, they tried to ban it. There is a golden rule for dealing with an opponent's political costing of your programme. Either destroy it, or ignore it. The Yes campaign has done neither.

It's perfectly legitimate to have a debate over the price of the referendum, its implementation and the wisdom of spending up to a quarter of a billion pounds on electoral reform when there are a so many other urgent public spending priorities. At least I believe it is. The Yes campaign chief executive, Katie Ghose, clearly thinks otherwise, and has claimed that adverts carrying the £250m figure are illegal. Her campaign literally believes claiming AV will cost £250m should be against the law of the land.

Meanwhile, Charlie Kennedy has written to the ASA demanding that it tear up its rules on political advertising, stating: "UK voters are entitled to decent, honest and truthful advertising." That's the same Charlie Kennedy who as Lib Dem leader published a campaign booklet which urged his activists to "be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly".

What the public thinks of this increasingly vicious fight purportedly being fought in their name, God only knows. Actually, the most recent opinion polls show a significant shift away from Yes towards the No camp, especially in those polls where the question includes a basic description of how the AV system will work.

In fact, who am I kidding? We all know the voters' real view of the AV debate. They don't give a monkey's. All they see is a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom they know nothing. But it's a quarrel that will go on. By the time you read this, I'll be back up country, engaged in a life-or-death struggle with an elusive and ruthless foe. It's a war without mercy, seemingly without end. Against a faceless opponent for whom we have only nicknames – sHelena, or Katie, or Charlie

I don't know how it will all play out. All I know is this: I still love the thrill of putting my cross on a first-past-the-post ballot come election morning.

And Charlie don't surf.

Getty
Show Hide image

How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496