Show Hide image

“No We Can”: the inside story of the No to AV campaign

No to AV scored a commanding win on 5 May, yet its early days were a muddle of partisan chaos. Dan H

My first day in defence of Britain's voting system wasn't a good one. An opinion poll had just been published showing double-digit support for changing to the Alternative Vote. Then I had been called in to a meeting where I'd been told our opponents were likely to outspend us by a margin of 3-1.

"You think you've got it bad," said one of my new colleagues. "On my first day someone walked over and said, 'Just to let you know, our Scottish organiser's just died.' "

I had joined a campaign, if not in crisis, then in a quandary. No to AV may have been one organisation but it consisted of a Tory head and a Labour heart. Matthew Elliott of the Taxpayers' Alliance was its director. Joan Ryan, the former Blairite minister and whip, was Elliott's putative deputy.

Labour was split, caught between a desire to oppose anything that could entail sharing power – or even a platform – with Nick Clegg, and a less instinctive desire to support Ed Milband's commitment to electoral reform. This left the No camp reliant on the Conservatives to provide the big battalions and big money.

But come the new year, neither had materialised. David Cameron was determined to stick to the terms of the coalition agreement and would not allow his party to engage with the No camp until the Referendum Bill had been passed. "We couldn't sign off budgets, which meant we couldn't buy ad space and that meant we couldn't even formally launch," one insider recalls.

Big sticks and fires

Things came to a head in the second week of January when Dylan Sharpe, the No team's wily head of press, reported that Gordon Brown's old spin doctor Paul Sinclair had begun touring the parliamentary Press Gallery every day, reinforcing the impression that the Yes campaign was running away with the contest. Sharpe later confided in colleagues that he concocted the story in order to "light a fire" under the campaign. It worked.

Peter Botting, a veteran political consultant with extensive contacts among Conservative backbenchers, was despatched to spread the word in the bars and corridors of parliament that the high command weren't pulling their weight. "It was a dangerous time for us," says a senior Tory activist, recalling that time. "We were getting dragged into the internal politics of the party.

"The usual suspects who had it in for Cameron were going to use us a big stick to beat him with."

Within a week, a delegation led by the 1922 Committee chairman, Graham Brady, was confronting David Cameron and George Osborne. According to one report of the encounter, Cameron was told: "You do realise there is now a serious prospect you could have the distinction of being the last ever Conservative prime minister?" Later, Cameron asked Osborne, "It's not that bad, is it?" "Yes, I think it is," the Chancellor replied.

From that point, though the public message was one of studied neutrality, behind the scenes the Conservatives began to embrace the No camp. Funders were pointed towards the campaign, weekly meetings were established between leading No staffers, and the PM called Elliott in for a briefing on the state of play.

Nevertheless, tensions remained. Though ultimately successful, the relationship between the two senior No campaign managers wasn't always harmonious. Partly that had to do with their respective backgrounds. Joan Ryan is a streetfighter, used to the bare-knuckle politics of the whips' office. Elliott, though caricatured by his opponents as a ruthless Thatcherite wolf, is a quiet, reserved, even slightly shy English gentleman; a strange cross between Norman Tebbit and David Niven.

Out of this disconnect, two campaigns were now operating.The Labour team was put in charge of the "ground war", mobilising activists around the country. The Tories were supposedly running the "air war", the messaging, media and advertising. In reality, neither was in full control of either.

"It was a mess," recalls an activist. "Someone sat down to talk us through the 'media grid'. It started with Churchill's birthday. Fine. Next was Australia Day. We had a line about Australia and Fiji, so we nodded. Then the Queen's birthday. This wasn't a media grid, it was just a calendar."

Moreover, each side had its own ad agency, pollster and designer. The Tories employed Boris Johnson's former campaign manager Lynton Crosby to run focus groups. Labour staffers were sceptical when Crosby's results indicated an implausibly high turnout. Meanwhile, Tory campaigners were suspicious of Labour's marketing agency, responsible for a series of leaflets. "Tory associations were refusing to deliver them," says an activist.

Toxic shock

Drastic measures were required. Ryan grabbed a senior team member and pointed to the dividing wall that separated the two halves of the campaign. "Get a sledgehammer," she said. "That wall's got to be down by the weekend." As it fell, the "Shotgun Strategy" was born: a twin assault on the Cost and Clegg.

The former was simple. I asked the campaign's researcher Piotr Brzezinski how long it would take to finish putting a price tag on the new voting system. "Three weeks," he responded. "Sorry," I said, "it's like that film Crimson Tide. We haven't got three weeks. We have to have that figure by Friday or the world ends." We got it.

The Clegg attack was more problematic. Ryan insisted that we should push the slogan "Tell Nick No"; Elliott thought it too negative. The collapse of the Lib Dem vote at the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election on 13 January made it clear that Clegg was toxic, but the Tories remained cautious.

"Clegg was putting pressure on Cameron to stay out of the debate," says a senior Tory. "After Oldham [Cameron] was sensitive to that. He didn't want to start kicking Clegg when he was down." Conservative HQ sent word that Clegg was not to be touched. But "the key [to winning] was Labour voters. No Clegg, no way of mobilising them," says a Labour campaigner.

It took Stephen Parkinson, the main Conservative linkman in the campaign, to march into CCHQ at Millbank and explain that, without the freedom to attack Clegg, No to AV was over and he would walk. "It was an important moment," says an insider. "People at CCHQ didn't think much of the No campaign, but they respected Stephen. When he started banging the table they had to listen."

CCHQ relented. On 14 February the No campaign formally launched, using images of a baby and with the slogan "She needs a new cardiac facility not a new voting system"; "Don't vote for President Clegg" soon followed.

"The £250m figure gave the campaign a bit of focus and stopped the slide in the polls," says a senior insider. "But even in February, the media weren't that interested in the issue. We needed to find a way of getting it more exposure."

At that point fate took a hand. While preparing a series of regional ads, I failed to notice that one of the standard "baby pictures" had been changed to fit the format of the page. The replacement image was much more graphic, with tubes, wires and syringes.

"Yes pounced, the pro-AV press slaughtered us and CCHQ hit the roof. But the [£250m] figure went global," a former colleague recalls. The move had one unintended consequence: it drew fire away from the attacks on Clegg. "Yes was after the £250m figure precisely when we were moving off and starting to go for Clegg," another insider says.

Flip a light switch

With less than four weeks to go until polling day, Downing Street informed us that Cameron was planning a new, high-profile intervention. Alarm bells sounded among the Labour team. Ian McKenzie, a former spin doctor for John Prescott, warned Ryan that the lobby was being heavily briefed that No was a "Tory front". Jane Kennedy, the former Labour MP who had skilfully shepherded over half of her erstwhile colleagues into the No camp, expressed unease at the potential impact of Cameron's proposed speech.

"The key to victory was Labour voters. They were effectively the switchers. If Yes managed to turn it into a referendum on Cameron, we were in trouble," notes a Labour staffer.

Ryan demanded a meeting with Elliott and one of Cameron's close aids, Stephen Gilbert. Sensitive to growing Lib Dem criticisms of collusion between No 10 and the No campaign, they decided to hold the meeting in a private room of the Park Plaza Riverbank Hotel on the Albert Embankment. "Joan told Gilbert that Cameron had to back off," says a source. "The PM doesn't do backing off," came the response.

A compromise was reached: Cameron would speak, but together with a senior Labour, the former defence secretary John Reid. Labour voters got the message. The morning after Cameron and Reid's joint appearance, the Guardian published a poll showing that support for AV had collapsed. In effect, the 2011 referendum campaign was over.

Dan Hodges was a communications consultant for the No to AV campaign.

A version of this article appears in this week's New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times