Why complacency could kill the Yes campaign

Will Straw at Left Foot Forward highlights a ComRes opinion poll for the Independent on Sunday, which he claims is “good news” for the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign, as they seek a “Yes” vote in the Alternative Vote referendum, which will be held in May providing it – and its associated legislation dealing with boundary changes – get through Parliament in time.

The poll shows 34 per cent of voters willing to back AV in May, with 30 per cent opposed. Furthermore, 61 per cent of those who answered “don’t know” to the referendum question said that they could be convinced to vote in favour of it, once they have heard the arguments.

Meanwhile, Ed Miliband told delegates at the Fabian Society conference yesterday that he would be campaigning in favour of AV:

We will take every opportunity to reform the way our political system works.  That is the reason I will be campaigning in favour of the Alternative Vote in the referendum. I will keep my promise.

But it is not all good news for the Yes campaign, despite the enthusiastic optimism of Straw and others. As Anthony Wells points out at UK Polling Report, one of the problems with spinning “61% say they could be persuaded to vote for AV” as positive for the Yes campaign is that no corollary question was asked. ComRes didn’t ask, and therefore we don’t know, how many people could be persuaded to vote against AV once they had more information.

The Yes campaign would also do well to consider what other pollsters have to say about AV. YouGov haven’t asked an AV question since late November, but when they did, “No” led by 41 points to 35. YouGov last asked about AV on January 13, where “No” led by nine points, with 41% compared to 32% for “Yes.” There is an underlying difference between YouGov’s and ComRes’ methodology – YouGov lead with a lengthy explanation of what AV is before asking whether people would support it; ComRes simply ask the question that will be posed in May’s referendum.

The problem with the ComRes method is that it assumes, a priori, that survey respondents know what AV is before answering the question (Wells also points out that there is, therefore, no “wouldn’t vote” option). Evidence from other sources indicates they don’t – some voters believe that “alternative vote” involves allowing people to vote by post or online, for instance. When AV is actually explained to respondents, they appear to be less likely to support it – and since the Electoral Commission is sending out pamphlets explaining AV in the weeks leading up to the referendum, we could see a consequent drop in support for change.

While Ed Miliband’s support for AV will be welcome for Yes campaigners, particularly those in the Labour Yes! camp, the Labour leader has previously stated that his and his party’s priority – rightly – will be the local and devolved elections, to be held on the same day. In Scotland, Labour face a tough fight to wrest power in Holyrood from the SNP, and the AV referendum – if it is considered at all – will be an afterthought. The same story is true up and down the country. So the backing of the Labour leader, while it is a boost for the Yes campaign, may prove to be softer than Yes advocates hope.

The Yes campaign have also challenged the No camp to a debate on the issue, with Jonathan Bartley, president of Yes to Fairer Votes, writing to No advocate Margaret Beckett in an open letter:

Ahead of May’s referendum it is only right that both those of us who want change, and those of you seeking to preserve the status quo get the chance to debate our issues fully so that people can make an informed choice. … [Previous media appearances] leave me with this question – what exactly is your argument to keep First Past the Post?

It suits the Yes campaign to paint the referendum as a straight “run-off” between First Past the Post and AV, but the reality is somewhat different. This dichotomy excludes those, like me, who are enamoured with neither system, and groups like AV2011, electoral reform advocates who insist that AV is not a “step towards” a proportional system, as many of the Yes campaign seem to believe.

The point of all this is that it is important for the Yes campaign not to become overconfident in the face of news, however “good” it may appear once it has been spun in a favourable light by Yes advocates. The scale of the task of winning the referendum should not be underestimated – the Yes campaign has a bigger fight on its hands than its leaders seem to suggest.

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