AV debate: both sides produced poor campaigns
AV debate: both sides produced poor campaigns
A view from Simon Kershaw

CREATIVE STRATEGY: Shameful AV campaigns show why we need real political reform

The AV referendum was an opportunity to have a serious, sensible debate about electoral reform, but neither the "Yes" nor the "No" sides have advertised with any intelligence.

I’m no plagiarist. If the views below seem familiar, it’s just because I happen to agree with Charlie Brooker’s comments on the AV campaigns – as informative and hilarious as you’d expect.

Why are we both so incensed by this stuff? Well, before I unleash my rant, let’s talk to an expert in modern history and government, Matt Cole, lecturer in politics for the Hansard Society.

Why, I asked him, did we end up with such dreadful campaigns in the run-up to this week’s referendum on the Alternative Vote? 

First, it’s hard to engage people about electoral reform, as "it’s not an issue people talk about in bus queues".

And with AV, voters could be forgiven for believing that it’s more about the competing interests of the main political parties, than a genuine effort to improve democracy.  Should they bother to make comparisons, they’ll find that AV is more likely than proportional representation or the single transferable vote to favour the big parties.

So people didn’t march in the streets demanding this referendum. That said, could there have been a positive explanation of its potential importance? The Hansard Society conducted focus groups to see how voters would react when AV was presented in three different ways.

Positioned as a progressive move to replace a flawed system, people were largely in favour of AV.  But, explained in too much detail, it was rejected. And, if the proposed system was associated with Nick Clegg, it became 100% toxic. 

The idea of fairness versus unfairness suggests there was an opportunity to have a serious, sensible debate about electoral reform. But neither side had the confidence to address the electorate with any intelligence. 

The "No" leaflet is typical. One of its platforms is that most countries don’t have AV, so that must be a bad thing. As Private Eye editor Ian Hislop pointed out to a Tory MP who used this argument on ‘Have I Got News For You’: "Most of the world is starving – is that an argument not to eat?"

For one recipient of the leaflet (my Aussie partner), it was doubly insulting. Australia has adopted AV. Most commentators would agree (vide 'Collapse' by Prof Jared M Diamond) that Australia is among the better-governed modern democracies.

But according to the "No" camp, if a few Johnny Foreigners have AV, then we should avoid it like the plague. Great. A campaign that’s racist as well as stupid. 

The "Yes" campaign leaflet was equally patronising, but in other ways – here are a bunch of celebs who agree with AV ... er, that’s it.

AV is radically different to first past the post, but not as complicated as its enemies would have you believe. As an exercise in the West Midlands proved, voters can count up to five! Our political masters may be morons. They didn’t have to treat the rest of us as though we are.

Cole agrees: advertising from both sides was characterised by "shoals of red herrings" where most of the so-called facts were "highly speculative, if not pure fiction". In short: "one of the most monstrous political advertising campaigns of recent times".

Simon S Kershaw is a creative consultant and a former creative director at Craik Jones.