“Ballots, butts and Battlestar Galactica” – ten years on from the AV referendum

George McFly from Back to the Future, with a "kick me" sign on his back.

Tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of the AV referendum, and I felt I should mark the date somehow. For me, the AV referendum was the event that finally broke me, in terms of my political career. It’s possible that if I hadn’t had such an awful experience being involved in Yes to Fairer Votes I would have burned out and quit anyway, but it wasn’t so much the straw that broke the camel’s back as it was the wrecking ball.

It’s a date which has been largely ignored, save for a single a documentary on Radio 4’s Archive series by Chris Mason. You can read my own contemporary account of what happened in my article for Liberator Magazine (issue 346) and my follow up review of Don’t Take No For An Answer by Ken Ritchie and Lewis Baston. I don’t especially recognise the person who wrote those articles; my life is very different now. After quitting the Lib Dems in 2012 and taking voluntary redundancy from Unlock Democracy in 2013, I had a breakdown, went through a period of long term depression and finally found myself in my current career, selling tabletop games in my local game shop. I’ve occasionally dipped a toe back into politics and campaigning since, but it hasn’t stuck and, if anything, merely served to remind me that I’m better off out of it.

But I do have a few observations about the whole affair, which I thought I would try to summarise here.

1. I should never have been anywhere near the campaign

Back in February 2010, at a time when I was writing regular pieces for the Guardian’s website, I wrote the following:

Very few people who think AV would be an improvement are actually passionate about it, so who will fight the campaign for a “yes” vote? 

It’s a good article and, unlike a number of the articles I wrote afterwards attempting to roll my position back, I stand by it. Nick Clegg famously described AV as “a miserable little compromise” and on this, I Agree With Nick. The problem was, I found myself shortly thereafter tasked with the job of helping to actually win a referendum campaign for AV.

One thing that quickly became apparent, as mentioned by Clegg in the Mason broadcast, was that none of the keen proponents for AV, particularly some of the loudest voices within Labour, were anywhere to be seen when the referendum kicked off. The Electoral Reform Society, which had done much to lay out the groundwork for persuading Labour to back the adoption of AV as a manifesto promise in 2010, found itself in the midst of a power struggle when the director at the time, Ken Ritchie, was in the process of being eased out of the organisation. The only people willing to spend the best part of a year working long, thankless hours in an attempt to achieve this minor reform, were people who would have preferred something more. Again in the Mason program, Nick Tyrone is very keen to put the boot in here and dismiss these activists as “comic con types” (Tyrone appears to think he’s living in an early 80s teen sex comedy in which he gets to be a jock laughing at the nerds, about which more later), but these were literally the only people willing to do the work, more often than not unpaid.

We knew this was a strategic problem for the campaign. The question therefore remains: why did the Lib Dems make a referendum on AV a key sticking point in the coalition negotiations? You could be forgiven for thinking, based on Clegg’s interview in the Mason programme, that he viewed it as a way of fobbing off the activists so he could get on with the Important Work of governing with the Conservatives, and set us up to fail. You will have to make your own mind up about that. Nevertheless, as he acknowledges, it would go on to poison the coalition well and undermine his work subsequently.

Either way, it wasn’t a campaign that I should have been involved with. It’s not that feel I screwed up the job before me as the social media manager, just that I contributed to the accusation that the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign was dominated by hypocrites who didn’t want AV either.

My personal problem was that in order to not be involved, I would have had to quit my job at Unlock Democracy. Alternatively, if Unlock Democracy had taken the brave decision to stand by and let the other organisations get on with it, it would have almost certainly lead to it losing its funding from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (a point which had been made to us obliquely on more than one occasion). In the event, by 2013, JRRT chose to withdraw funding and as a result I was made refundant. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but if I’d had my time again, I sorely wish I had leapt before I was effectively pushed out.

2. No-one ever talked to me about the EU referendum

It’s hard to disagree with Chris Mason’s opinion that this “forgotten referendum” was a dress rehearsal for what was to come in the form of the EU referendum five years later. What I found interesting was quite how quickly it was forgotten. In the immediate aftermath, I remember there being a lot of talk about political reformers and politicians needing to learn the lessons from the disastrous campaign so as to never repeat the same mistakes. I remember the ERS commissioning a group of academics to produce a report which I was interviewed for, although I’ve never seen this report.

It was genuinely surprising to me that in the run up to the EU referendum, no-one from the Remain campaign ever approached me about my thoughts on what they should and should not do. Perhaps this is ego talking, but I’m not aware of anyone in the campaign being approached.

It seemed remarkable to me that no-one seemed to think they had anything to learn from us. But then, if I was a Cameron-supporting, pro-Remain Tory who had been on the No to AV side and was aware of what a brutally effective campaign that had been, I would have moved the earth to avoid holding a second national referendum in the first place. It isn’t just the Lib Dems who were guilty of hubris.

3. It was Lord Sharkey’s campaign

I’m not writing this to especially condemn the man – there has been far too much water under the bridge since – but it seems very weird to me the degree to which Lord Sharkey‘s role in the campaign has been downplayed and even airbrushed out of history. He isn’t mentioned once in the Chris Mason programme, not even in a side note that No to AV Matthew Elliot’s analogue in the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign had declined to be interviewed. And yet it was my recollection that every single significant appointment or campaign decision had been made by him. No one has ever challenged this as far as I know. He’s just been essentially scrubbed from the record.

This was very much at his request. Right from the earliest stage I recall him saying that he had two conditions: that he be in absolute control, and that his name be kept out of everything. But ten years on, it is hard to see why this omerta is still being respected by all involved. It isn’t as if he is a private figure; he’s a member of the UK legislature. As far as I’m aware, he remains the honorary treasurer of the Hansard Society.

The fact is, while I think the campaign was pretty doomed from the start, it remains my belief that he made a number of decisions that only served to make the situation worse. But more than anything else, what I found hardest to take was his complete disappearance after the referendum had concluded. I guess I’ve never encountered a situation where a leadership figure has refused to be held to account either in public or in private to such an extent before.

4. Matthew Elliot is an evil genius

While Matthew Elliot’s role as director of No to AV is less of a secret, I feel that his contribution to the political norms we now live under has been massively understated. The Chris Mason documentary does a lot to correct this record, particularly with regard to his contribution to the Vote Leave campaign, but in general he is allowed to continue unmolested in his career.

Contrast that to Dominic Cummings. My namesake’s political drama Brexit: the Uncivil War, sought to portray Cummings as the sole genius behind Vote Leave, with Elliot as something of a witless stooge going along with Cummings’ schemes. This was to entirely ignore Elliot as the person behind the No campaign of the North East Assembly referendum in 2004 as well as the director of the Taxpayer’s Alliance; he is one of the architects of that style of campaigning and he has honed his skills over many years.

It’s no great surprise that Cummings has since emerged as a bumptious buffoon, incapable of surviving in government, and one whose sole belief – in himself – has proven to be woefully inadequate. I suspect that Elliot likes it this way, and is perfectly happy for Cummings to steal the limelight and brickbats while he gets on with actually achieving things (which in his case is currently destroying the British state from the inside out).

While Elliot hasn’t managed to keep himself out of the headlines to quite the same extent as Lord Sharkey, his ability to evade scrutiny is nothing less than remarkable. He deserves credit as one of the key figures behind this new doctrine of politics, that being that it should be entirely shameless and regard the truth and honourable conduct as inconveniences to be shed at the drop of the hat. I hope posterity won’t forget him in the way that contemporary media frequently does.

5. Nick Tyrone was the biggest winner of Yes to Fairer Votes

My career weirdly mirrors Nick Tyrone’s. While the AV referendum was the finishing of my political career, it was the making of his. He went from an obscure film producer with almost no political or campaigning background who just happened to be the husband of Nick Clegg’s Director of Policy, to the head of the Radix think tank. He fell out with the Lib Dems pretty quickly post-2015 as the party sought to distance itself from the “coalicious” period and these days has very much positioned himself in the same right wing circles as, well, Matthew Elliot.

I found his contribution to the Chris Mason piece interesting. There’s a point in which he talks about the campaign’s “plans” to buy a number of inflatable bottoms and invite members of the public around the country to kick them so as to “kick their MP up the behind”. It’s an old story, presumably true, and emerged soon after the campaign had concluded. But Tyrone must know that for all its mistakes, it was never seriously considered by the campaign as an option; rather it was a suggestion by the increasingly hapless advertising agency that had been hired by the campaign (Lord Sharkey, an alum of Saatchi & Saatchi, insisted that traditional advertising would win us the campaign). Tyrone must know that this was never seriously considered, let alone implemented in any way.

His loathing for the campaign is pretty obvious, and his ire seems particularly focused on the “electoral reform geeks” who dominated it (despite this, and his personal antipathy towards electoral reform, his first job following his work on the campaign was for the Electoral Reform Society). There’s a weird story he tells on his own blog about how, after the referendum campaign, he came across a group of campaigners playing a game based on Battlestar Galactica. He was so outraged about this that by his own admission he went around telling everyone who would listen about its, quote, “insidiousness,” presumably as some kind of proof of how inept the pro-AV activists were.

I know what he’s referring to, as the game was hosted by me (after work hours, regardless of how much he insists otherwise). Indeed, the Battlestar Galactica board game is beloved by many and is still one that I play from time to time.

It’s a fascinating insight to me, because it shows quite how far apart we are. What he calls insidious, I regard as a pretty innocuous attempt by a group of colleagues to let off some steam after a pretty awful few months. But it also highlights quite how inept his attempts at damaging us was; as he acknowledges himself eventually the story grew in the telling until the legend became that Clegg himself had been involved. No-one cared that a bunch of staffers had been minding their own business enjoying themselves one evening; it just became another stick to beat the deputy prime minister with.

I’ve obviously managed to turn my geeky gamer interests into a career, which I’m sure Tyrone would regard with contempt and confirmation of all his prejudices if he found out. All I can say to this is, that as far as most members of the public are concerned, Tyrone’s past decade of greasy pole climbing is likely to be regarded as far more “insidious” than my own career change in that time. It is remarkable to me that someone who is now paid to advise politicians on what they should think and do should have this blind spot.

In Conclusion

If this feels like I’m blaming others for my misfortune, believe me: no-one feels more responsible for how the AV referendum went down, or has wracked their brains over what I could have personally done better more than me. If I didn’t feel responsible, and inadequate, my political career would not have imploded the way it did.

Rather, for me, the AV referendum marks the changing of an era in politics, in which the shameless populist style of campaigning that Matthew Elliot and the like took hold, and people like me found they lacked the temperament even to stick around. I have enormous respect for people on the moderate left who continue to persevere for a more principled, open and honest politics but the AV referendum made it clear that I lacked both the patience and wisdom to continue under this current climate.

I don’t really know what the way forward is. The genius of Matthew Elliot’s style of campaigning is that while it is unfair and uncivilised the worst response to overly focus on that fact. At some point, some savant in political ju jitsu will hopefully be able to somehow find a way to counter that. In the meantime, the public’s response seems to simply be to switch off entirely and give the most corrupt government in history a free pass.

Is there anything to learn from the AV referendum? Maybe not; or at least, those lessons needed to be learned before the EU referendum. But we should at least remember it as the time that something fundamentally broke in British politics. Who knows? Maybe our culture war loving government, in asserting that history can only be remembered by public statuary, will commission a bronze politician’s bottom for people to kick in Trafalgar Square?


  1. Interesting blog post – I actually recall your postmortem at the time as being refreshingly honest if also quite depressing. I was only a footsoldier in one of the local YTFV campaigns, but when I remember it all now I still find myself getting angry (although, as at the time, this is leavened with quite a bit of sardonic humour). I suspect that once the Lib Dems collapsed in the polls an electoral system which (unfairly) became associated with them was always doomed, but there’s a difference between being part of a losing campaign and being part of a campaign which *deserves* to lose. The decision to invest in local phone banks was wrong headed but at least defensible – less so was the instruction that came from on high that we were not to make the arguments for AV, and that we should direct contacts to both the YTFV and No2AV websites! Apparently this was in response to a cease and desist letter from No2AV claiming that phone banking for campaigning purposes in a referendum was in breach of data protection legislation. A competent campaign would have instructed solicitors to respond referencing Arkell v Pressdram – certainly this interpretation of data protection legislation was not taken by any side of the Scottish independence or Brexit referendums – but YTFV just rolled over and accepted this. In light of the Brexit referendum, it’s hard not to look back and think of it as a sign that ‘our side’ was hopelessly outmatched.

    1. Before the AV campaign, I had a fair bit of experience in phone banking (I’ve run two parliamentary constituency election campaigns, one successfully, and numerous local election campaigns). It wasn’t my department, but I was pretty appalled at how ineptly run it was, and the inadequacies of the software which we were dependent on.

      On the “not making arguments for AV” issue, I have some sympathy as all the polling evidence and evidence from abroad suggested that explaining the system was a loser in terms of winning the argument with the vast majority of voters. By contrast, the polling evidence we’d received suggested that people who had actually tried the system were vastly more likely to try it. There was a big push from the campaign arm that what we needed to do was, wherever possible, get people trying the system themselves – on the high street or online. This was vetoed from the top though.

      Like you say, it isn’t the losing that I’m especially bothered by. It’s the feeling that, due to our poor choices, we deserved to lose.

  2. Fascinating read, James – while I knew you were politically insightful and engaged, I had no idea the role you played in one of the formative political moments of my entire time in London.
    I have, so often – and obviously with only the slightest grasp of the facts – been of the opinion that Nick Clegg had some ‘Sophie’s Choice’ moment as a part of entering coalition, and selected AV referendum as his best chance of achieving positive, lasting change for his party – sacrificing Uni Fees in a decision, which – in retrospect – seems nothing less than catastrophic.
    For whatever TINY amount it is worth – I found the campaign and the argument for AV to be incredibly compelling, and I was a staunch defender. I remember being in an office environment where a good 20% of the office were deeply Tory public affairs professionals, and doing my best to defend and debate the merits of AV. Not once did I feel that my counterparts had ANYTHING to offer other than emotive and obnoxious slogans which did a disservice to the truth (“one man should get one vote”). At the but was firmly aware of the feeling that I was in the “if you’re explaining, you’re losing” camp.
    When Brexit came around – I absolutely shared your feeling that this was uncomfortably familiar. I also remember being astounded by how deep into the memory hole the AV campaign had gone.
    Nothing boiled my blood more than the Battlestar Galactica segment above. Maybe I responded to the AV campaign due to some end-to-end resonance between your and my interests. Maybe, us both being people who like board games – we are accustomed to thinking about systems and rules and wanting them to be offered effectively and fairly. Maybe the allergic reaction some people have to that way of thinking is indicative of something larger, and about how it’s felt to be a Brit, or citizen of a western democracy, over the past decade.
    Again – an amazing read which I appreciate can’t have been easy to return to or share – but for which I am deeply, deeply grateful.

  3. Ah, see the thing is James, Matthew Elliott is not an “evil genius” at all. He’s not even that much of a genius. Matthew Elliott understands the otherside. He studies them and he knows why people vote Labour, or for the LibDems, or for FPTP, of for Remain. Add that to being able to organise a fairly competent campaign and voila! Your side don’t have a clue why people vote for the Tories or for Brexit – and you never will.

    1. Apologies for only just seeing this comment and allowing it – as you may guess I don’t come on here much. You’re right; I and perhaps “my side” don’t understand why people vote for the Tories or Brexit. The thing is though, 6 years into the Brexit project, it isn’t at all clear to me why you do what you do at all. Brexit has been an utter disaster by every metric you measure it by, and throughout those 6 years the right has persisted by eating itself. First by purging anyone who as much as looked at Brussels, leaving you with a massive dearth of talent, and now the mess we’re in now. It’s been a summer where the hard Brexiteers spent all their energy telling their supporters that they should back their wonderful, true free market liberal Liz Truss as PM, who went on to be an utter disaster, and now they are just barely getting behind the arch-Brexiteer Rishi Sunak – who they spent the summer claiming was a Marxist.

      The story remains the same on the other side of the pond. Do any of you know what your end game is in all this? Because while I can’t deny that shitting the bed has been effective, it’s hard to see what you’re getting out of it yourselves.

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