No to AV’s new campaign is beyond parody

“Do what we say, or the baby gets it.”

There are some things in life that seem so far beyond parody – Sarah Palin's continued credibility, for example, or Michael Winner's Twitter feed – that the sceptic in me keeps waiting for the moment when we all get made to look like fools for taking them seriously. But the longer these things keep going, the more we have to face up to the unsettling probability that actually, they're not a mock-up at all. This is what people really think. Not for a laugh, not just to get attention, but because that's just how they are.

And that's what I keep thinking to myself when I see the No to AV campaign's bizarre range of adverts. I keep expecting someone to say: "Doh! Of course that's not a real No to AV advertisement, you big silly! We'd never put out something as crass to make a political point – what do you take us for, a bunch of jerks?" But that doesn't happen. It's a real advert. It's actually earnest, po-faced, this-is-what-we-think campaigning.

If you've not seen it, I'm sorry to have to bring it to your attention, really. It's a picture of a newborn baby, with the shouty slogan "She needs a new cardiac facility NOT an alternative voting system". The implication is, I suppose, that there's a binary choice – either we have a cardiac facility or a new voting system. There's a pair of scales with electoral reform in one pan and the life of a child in the other. In another advert, we're given the choice between bulletproof jackets for our brave boys in Afghanistan, or an alternative voting system.

Hang on a second, though. Does that mean it's an alternative voting system, or bulletproof jackets for soldiers, or a cardiac facility? If so, who gets to choose that bit? (You could argue that we don't, because the voting system is not proportional enough, and that's exactly what the Yes to AV campaign is about; but that's another matter, and I don't really want to get sucked into the vortex on this one.)

The problem with creating either/or choices on subjects that are slightly more complicated than "tea or coffee?" is that the fallaciousness of the argument can be exposed by simply adding another choice. How about electoral reform, or bulletproof jackets, or a cardiac unit, or a free pint of beer for everyone? Does that change anyone's mind?

AV or not AV, that is the question. What I can't understand is why, when there are reasonable and rational answers in the No to AV camp, such as those put forward by my fellow NS blogger David Allen Green the other day, they are eschewed in favour of "Do what we say, or the baby gets it". It's infantile in every sense, and just seems like shock value for the sake of it, the kind of angry argument that assumes voters don't have a clue and see the whole world as a series of either/or choices.

If this is the quality of campaigning we're going to have in the coming days and weeks, it's no wonder that the issue could fail to grasp the public imagination. Come to think of it, I suppose that a distaste for the whole thing is something that would benefit the No campaign – but, having seen what they've come up with thus far, I doubt they're that smart.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.