AV Referendum: Lessons from 2011

In 2011, the Yes to AV campaign used a platform of optimism to underline their simple message, whereas the No to AV campaign played the political game by combining a cynical message, with a manipulation of both the facts (such as their rounding up of the cost of AV from £9 million to £250 million) and importance of the issue. Sadly, in today’s media climate of fear, it’s the political game which wins the votes. Although now we have a unique chance to, ironically enough, say no to a system which relies on the passive interest of an electorate encouraged to avoid change, and engage the public in taking an active role in their future.

If there’s one thing that we can avoid which the AV debate could not, it’s the importance of the issue. It’s easy to convince voters a system they’ve never heard of isn’t worth the fuss it created, but it would take a political genius the likes of which we’ve never seen to convince us that deciding our place in the Union and in the world isn’t ‘worth it’.

When I leafleted the streets in 2011, the responses came in three forms; ‘already voting Yes’, ‘what’s the point’, and ‘what’s AV?’. The last two made up the majority of the No vote; a collection of disinterest and the No campaign’s refusal to help educate the public accurately on what they were voting for (not to mention disengaged Lib Dem voters caught up in anti-Clegg mode). Thankfully for us now, we can move forward with the assurance that no one will doubt the importance of what we’re fighting for, and we can use that confidence to campaign that much more passionately.

The AV referendum offered us the chance not only to decide on a new voting system, but to have a sensible debate about the form our democratic system should take. It might have only occurred as a desperate attempt by the Lib Dems to squeeze something visibly liberal out of the coalition deal, but any left-leaning or pro-reform politician should have jumped on the chance to, at the very least, challenge the establishment. Instead, it turned into the UK left’s first chance to tell Nick Clegg how much they disagreed with his party’s decisions, which in another tastily ironic turn of events, was the result of a shoddy democracy.

The No campaign knew this, and even went so far as to print leaflets which claimed that “Under the Alternative Voting system Nick Clegg would have the power choose the Government, not you”, as opposed to, you know, First Past the Post giving him the exact same power. More unfortunately than this mind blowing hypocrisy, the Yes campaign chose to forget their optimistic message in favour of challenging the No campaign at their own game, that is, cynicism. Posters were printed with photos of Nick Griffin with the tagline “He’s voting No, how about you?”, once again driving the entire referendum into purely political grounds, playing on people’s unwillingness to look at the issue itself and look at who’s backing it.

Such dumbed down fear mongering is something the Yes Scotland campaign has thus far managed to avoid. You might argue that a significant amount of campaigning has been focused against the Tories, but during a time when we’re being ruled by a party we overwhelmingly voted against, it’s a fairly important and relevant point when it comes to deciding how we’re governed.  Again, when National Collective stood up to Ian Taylor’s bankrolling of Better Together, it was a stand against a corrupt system rather than petty politics. Thankfully it’s also a lot harder for Better Together to make a villain of any particular Yes campaigner, given that the main party in favour of independence was voted in via an unprecedented majority.

If you were to examine the Yes Scotland campaign and contrast it with Better Together, you’ll find one consistently prominent difference: optimism versus cynicism. Yes Scotland is arguing for their preferred system of government, while Better Together, instead of promoting anything positive about the Union, is spending its time bashing Scotland’s ability to work independently. They might have managed to avoid a negative name with ‘Better Together’, but their campaigning has been a perfect example of the old politics which all of the Westminster parties champion, and is a continuation of the corrupt democracy the AV debate consisted of. There’s a reason the SNP did so well in 2011, and it’s because they were the only party to stand up and say ‘You know what? Things aren’t that bad.’ When the AV referendum came around, the progressive electorate was still feeling insulted from the last time they put their faith into someone they thought might change things, making it harder to engage people into voting for something new.

This gave the conservatives (small c) the chance to rally together those who found AV unnecessary with those who would otherwise have actually preferred AV to First Past the Post, thereby forcing an inherently anti-democratic referendum where people were convinced that voting Yes was a vote for Nick Clegg. The Yes campaign was faced with an impossible scenario; to convince people that even though the referendum was happening because of Clegg, he actually had nothing to do with what was being voted for. In 2014, we can’t let any one person get in the way of what we’re fighting for. This referendum isn’t about Alex Salmond or David Cameron. It’s not even about Ian Taylor or Donald Trump. It’s about everything and everyone related to Scotland. It’s about who we let govern our lives, and how accountable we choose to have those who rule us be. That’s something both AV campaign teams forgot, that a referendum isn’t about who’s voting what, it’s about what’s being offered to us on the ballot.

You might well find that a lot of those voting No are doing so out of it being the default position, and the fact that the default position is usually, rather depressingly, the status quo. That’s where I sat on independence, until the prospect of a referendum forced me to read into what I could. There’s a lot we can learn from the AV referendum, but the most important thing to take from it is that we shouldn’t allow anyone to dumb down the importance of knowing what we’re voting for.

Hamish Gibson
National Collective


About Hamish Gibson

Hamish Gibson is an arts journalist studying English and Politics at Aberdeen University. National Collective Arts Editor and Scotland On Sunday new music columnist.