AV and the Big Society: The Dangers of Introspection

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The entrails of the opposing campaigns for the AV referendum last week will be pored over for weeks to come.  The result was a crushing defeat of AV by a margin of almost 2:1.  The cause of electoral reform has been kicked into the long grass, although some surprising dissenting voices to that thesis are worth hearing.

Already criticism is turning to the failure of the YES campaign to engage the electorate.  The failure which stands out for particular consideration is a question of realism.  Liberal Vision is particularly insightful:

The YES campaign was eminently winnable. But it ended up being run by readers of the Guardian for readers of the Guardian … From the outset, the YES campaign was all about the tiny coterie of people who feel strongly about electoral reform.

The point made in the article is that those leading the campaign addressed it to people like themselves.  The often self-congratulatory tone of the campaign material seemed directed more at cheering on existing supporters than seeking new ones.  Prominent people backing the campaign – including a disproportionate number of actors and celebrities who don’t necessarily bring credibility to a campaign – appealed to voters who were already inclined to vote YES.  There was little serious effort to appeal beyond an existing constituency.  As the result proved, that constituency (despite claims ad nauseum that there is a latent ‘progressive majority’ in Britain) was no way near big enough to win the referendum.

The contrast with the NO campaign is striking.  Matthew Elliot, the NO2AV campaign director, is clearly a gifted strategist.  His ability to ram home the core messages of his campaign to the much larger constituency of natural Tories, but also beyond to Lib-Dem hating Labourites, was undoubtedly enhanced by drawing on the ‘big beasts’ of both the Conservative and Labour parties.  Using the latter effectively was key to the campaign’s success, dramatically overshadowing any YES campaigning by the Labour leadership:

If Elliott had spent his first weeks in post writing to hard-core Tories about how marvellous and clever they were, he may have lost. He didn’t. He made it his number one aim to build a coalition with Labour and deployed his left-wing allies superbly. Ed Miliband was left looking like a weakened man who couldn’t control the more charismatic and compelling beasts in his party like John Reid. This ability to build a wider coalition from the outset, rather than retreat into the comfort zone of centre-right, free market politics was central to the NO campaign’s success.

The ability of the NO campaign to build a working coalition with anyone – anyone – who would help them win was remarkable.  The referendum could only have been won if Labour supporters had voted YES.  They didn’t, and Elliott’s work in getting high-level Labour support for the NO campaign was crucial to this.  His affability and ruthless focus on the goal of a NO result compelled him to work with anyone to achieve the aim. It contrasts strikingly with the YES campaign’s refusal, until a mere ten days before polling day, to take up Nigel Farage of UKIP’s offer of support.  He could have reached out to a sceptical, more conservative voter much more effectively than Eddie Izzard or Tony Robinson could.  On a strategic level there was no reason for this refusal to use Farage – prejudice clouded the YES campaign’s judgement.

Of course, the YES campaign argued (often rightly) that the NO strategy was dependent on questionable claims including hugely inflated cost estimates.  But this is politics.  As Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home has said, they were the right messages and resonated strongly outside the Westminster bubble.  Perhaps it is part of being an ardent electoral reformer that you speak to people as you wish they were, with arguments you believe to be right, rather than addressing people as they are, with arguments which will convince them.  But that will leave you merely an aspiring electoral reformer, not an election winner.

Electoral reform just isn’t a ‘bread and butter’ issue.  The vast majority of the population are concerned not with constitutional tinkering but with jobs, petrol prices and good schools and hospitals. No amount of wishful thinking or high-minded creative campaigning by a well-educated liberal intelligentsia could change that.  The campaign didn’t seek to address people as they really are, in terms that would resonate with most people.  Instead it spoke to people like themselves.

This mirrors a similarly unsuccessful campaign beset by introspection – the attempt to promote the Big Society as a signature message of David Cameron’s premiership.  Plenty of valiant efforts have been made to define what the Big Society actually is, including an excellent book by the thoughtful and candid Conservative MP Jesse Norman.  But the idea has failed spectacularly in resonating with the public.  It might be an exciting governing philosophy, but it is an atrocious political message.  The previous government may well have been obsessed with focus groups and polling, but it beggars belief that Cameron’s team did not test out the Big Society message before promoting it.  How could they demonstrate such blind, and misplaced, confidence?

The most likely answer is the same mixture of introspection and pride which characterised the YES campaign in the AV referendum.  Its champions are intelligent, innovative and committed.  But they seem to lack the will, or perhaps freedom of movement, to mobilise genuine public support.  The conversation too often seems to be between existing supporters and sympathisers.

If the Big Society cannot be communicated in a way which resonates with the sixty million other people in Britain then it needs to be repackaged, fast.  For those on the periphery of Westminster politics but who are central to civil society there is a lesson that must be learned quickly.  Introspection is dangerous.  It risks alienating others, and ultimately sabotaging what you hope to achieve by failing to communicate your core message in a way which builds your power.  Repetitive conferences of the same crowd of academics, charity chiefs and community leaders risk over-rehearsing the Big Society lines so much that they become incomprehensible to the outside world.  Conferences of key thinkers are undoubtedly important, as are building and maintaining close relationships between people sharing common ideas, and deeper reflection and research into the themes beneath the Big Society is welcome.  But that is not the same as winning public support for the idea or its policies.

Proponents of the Big Society need to take seriously the consistent polling which shows that the majority of the population have no idea what it means.  A large number of people see it simply as a cover for spending cuts, and the brand is becoming dangerously toxic in some quarters.  We must respond to that trend, not retreat into self-congratulatory conferences and self-defensive postures expecting others to simply come round to our views through some kind of social or philosophical osmosis.  The abject failure of YES to AV cautions us otherwise.

In the interests of what the Big Society intended to achieve, it may well be best to drop the label and pursue the policies under more politically popular branding instead.  But Cameron has already invested a huge amount personally in the brand, as has his close adviser Steve Hilton, so that may be unlikely.  Pride always complicates politics.  Are the defenders of what the Big Society stands for prepared to shed the label in order to achieve the policies required to create it?  That may not yet be necessary.  But if it becomes so, will we swallow our pride and recognise political reality?

Josh Harris – Research Coordinator, Contextual Theology Centre

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