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.

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood