A 'Guest Post' by Edward Spalton:
There are some lessons to be learned from this. They need thinking about but would not necessarily transfer to an in/out EU referendum.
1. Self Delusion by the Liberal DemocratsElectoral reform has been the holy grail of the Liberal and later the Liberal Democrat Party for generations. Through talking amongst themselves they became convinced that “public opinion is moving our way”. It was obvious from the attitude of some of their spokesmen that they really believed the case for AV was so self-evident that nice, reasonable people could not possibly be against it. In one interview Mr. Huhne, for instance, likened opponents to the people he most despises – Americans who are not convinced by President Obama's birth certificate! This rather arrogant self-righteousness came across and was very off-putting to the sort of people who are interested in politics, open to persuasion but not deeply committed.
2. Desire to give the Lib Dems a Good Kicking.Untainted by government responsibility, the Lib Dems were very successful over the years in presenting themselves as the “nice” party, not like those awful, squabbling, dishonest, tribal, thuggish Labour and Tory people. On their first scent of office since 1945, they reneged spectacularly on their manifesto promise about university fees. Arguably the financial situation did not give them much choice but people saw this as outright twisting and hypocrisy, were irritated by their smugness and resolved to take them down a peg or two. In spite of support for AV from members of other parties, people saw it as a Lib-Dem project and voted to show their disapproval of the Lib Dems. This is a lesson for any referendum.
It is true that people do not necessarily vote in answer to the question on the paper. In the 1975 referendum on “Common Market” membership, my late father, a dyed in the wool Tory, said “I don't like this European business but that man Wedgewood Benn's against it – so there must be some good in it”! Anecdotal I know but I am sure this sort of thing, repeated many times, adds up to a potent force in the circumstances of any referendum. The choice of “champions” is crucial and Eddy Izzard & Co plainly were not up to the job. There were also blatantly bogus claims for the benefits of AV – it was said that it would “make MPs work harder” and draw a line under the distrust of politicians arising from the scandals over expenses. I cannot think that anybody outside the small group of enthusiasts inside the political bubble (and probably not even them) ever believed either of these things for a moment.
3. The Weight of the Status QuoI am not sure where the figure comes from but I have heard it said that, in any referendum, there is a built-in bias of around 15% in favour of the existing situation. People are suspicious and nervous of change. This may have played a part here.
4. Absence of Long Term Heavyweight Preparation and Propaganda.The calling of the referendum was itself a compromise on a compromise choice of system, agreed only at the beginning of the coalition about a year ago. So no deep manipulation of public opinion was possible, as occurred over several years in the early Seventies before the EEC referendum. The government spin machine was not involved, neither were the main party machines and associated interests, such as trade unions and employers' groups. The campaign was largely confined to the official period between the calling of the local elections and May 5th.