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
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.