I shot Bambi

I was the one behind the AV baby ad.

OK, it was me. I admit it. I shot Bambi. Or the contemporary political equivalent.

I was the one behind the AV baby ad. Though no babies were actually harmed in the making of that advertisement you understand. It wasn't a real baby, but a highly trained stunt baby. Please don't try to re-create an ad like that with your own baby at home.

I was spurred to this admission by an article written by my good friend Rachel Sylvester in Tuesday's Times (£). Rachel was upset. Not specifically at me (obviously she had no insight into my dark secret), but both sides in the Alternative Vote campaign. "This is turning into one of the nastiest, most negative campaigns I can remember," she wrote. Each side is "determined to reinforce everything that is bad about them in the voters' minds".

Rachel touches on two perceptions that are gaining currency among political and media observers. First, that the AV campaign is the most desperate and underhand since Richard Nixon thought: "I wonder what those guys in the Watergate building are saying about me."

And second that an electorate already disgusted by the antics of their parliamentary representatives are going to throw up their hands in horror, shout "Enough", and turn away from politics for good.


Let's examine the first. Is this really one of Britain's nastiest, most negative campaigns? Worse than the 1980s, when the Liberals were running around Bermondsey urging people to vote against Peter Tatchell, and for the "straight choice", Simon Hughes? Worse than 1997, when Labour was telling pensioners that if they re-elected the Tories evil John Major was going to evict them from their homes? Worse than the 1960s, when one Tory candidate was pushing the catchy slogan "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour"?

By comparison, prime examples of the perfidy of the AV campaigners are my baby posters and a Yes advert that has a photo of Nick Griffin, with the lines: "He's voting 'No'. How about you?"

Now, some people may challenge the £250m estimate for the introduction of AV, though I think it's actually proved to be a pretty robust figure. But at a time when the police, the armed forces and, yes, the health service, are all facing significant cuts, asking whether the cost of a change in the voting system represents an appropriate allocation of public resources seems to be me a legitimate question. And even if it isn't, it's hardly the new Zinoviev letter.

In fairness to the Yes campaign, the same can also be said for its Griffin ad. If the BNP leader is voting No it doesn't seem to me to be a crime to point it out. A complete irrelevance, perhaps, but hardly an outrage to echo down the ages.

And from this flawed analysis of political history comes an even more flawed assessment of the impact on, and reaction of, the voters: "By mounting such negative campaigns against each other, both sides risk further undermining people's trust in politics. It's part of a wider problem of denial at Westminster."

Wrong. The people in denial are those politicians and commentators who think the public is prepared to be told, indefinitely, what the public's priorities are, and what they are not.

Who actually requested this referendum on the Alternative Vote? Not the 71 per cent of the electorate who voted for the Tories, or for Lib Dems, or for other parties at the election. Only Labour had a commitment to an AV referendum in its manifesto.

Where is the public clamour for electoral reform? The latest MORI tracker found that just 1 per cent of the population regards it as one of the important issues facing Britain today.

The Daily Express has been mocked for its campaign calling for a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU. But the number of people who regard the common market, Europe and the euro as significant exceed proponents of change to our electoral system by a margin of four to one.

We know what is about to happen. The AV trumpets will sound on 5 May. Less than half of us will appear to fulfil our democratic duty. And then the cry will ring out, "If only we'd had a more uplifting campaign. People would have been fighting to get to the polls."

It's rubbish. And the people who try to create this fiction are being much more disingenuous than any advert or claim from either of the AV campaigns

Because the truth is, on occasion, it's not negative campaigning that leads to voter apathy. It's voter apathy that leads to negative campaigning. When I helped created the baby campaign, it was partially because I was trying to frame the issue in a way that people worrying about their jobs, their mortgages and cuts to their services could relate to. I was desperately trying to make relevant a subject that 99 per cent of the public find a complete, utter, total irrelevance.

So I killed Bambi. Rachel, I apologise. But to be honest, if I had my time over, I'd do the same again.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.