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The Yes Campaign – What lessons need to be learned

The author Andy May was the National Manager of the Regional Staff for the Yes Campaign and
formerly National Organiser of Take Back Parliament.

This is written for some of the thousands of people who worked their hearts out for the

The first ever national UK referendum on our voting system was always going to be a difficult
affair. It may be that we were never in a position to win once the Conservatives and a significant
part of the Labour parliamentary party mobilised against us. But the size of the loss cannot just
be attributed to the political environment we were in. Those who ran the Yes campaign must
take a long hard look at themselves.

Before looking at the problems, I want to start on a positive note. Having been involved in
democratic reform 18 months, I can say that from when I started some great things have been
achieved. Even after the loss of AV, constitutional change is still on the agenda with Lords reform
likely to happen within this parliament. The Take Back Parliament rallies just over a year ago gave
us the media exposure we needed to renew interest in democratic reform. There is now a
national activist network with many passionate and hard working volunteers who want to
continue despite a big setback.

There were at the peak about 150 local groups and I hope many will continue and grow and be
given the support they need. During the referendum the ground campaign also managed to build
up the closest equivalent that has probably ever been seen to a political party machine created by
a non-party campaign. And we did this in less than nine months. This was only possible through a
superb network of regional staff, from all parties and non-aligned backgrounds who bonded and
worked together across party lines. Let’s not forget that 6,152,000 people voted for change even
though it was a compromise choice for a limited type of electoral reform where the instigator,
Nick Clegg, was hugely unpopular with the public.

Whatever the positives, I have to say in many ways the past months have been incredibly
frustrating for myself and a number of other staff who felt they can’t speak out. Other post
mortems I have seen, like this one, have been rightly critical and those of us who worked on the
campaign owe it to the volunteers and donors to allow a public inquest in to what went wrong.
My view is fairly critical. From the very start the self interest of the major funders and the senior
management’s lack of creativity, lack of experience and inability to listen to staff and activists’
concerns had a very negative impact on the chances of success.

These are just some of the contributing factors.

Staffing: One thing which probably both campaigns suffered from was a lack of experience of
referenda given this country hasn’t had one for 35 years. However we also even lacked staff with
experience in basic political campaigning – although some certainly stepped up to the plate and
did some outstanding work this cost us. The most experienced people in the campaign were often
the regional organisers – who had up to 20-30 years experience from Labour or the Lib Dems in
some cases. At HQ there were just a couple of people who had any deeper experience than
running a constituency campaign – yet had hugely important roles with national influence. Unlike
No2AV who drafted in a number of experienced staffers as the campaign developed we never
really addressed this. Our Director John Sharkey is ultimately responsible for both these choices
and many of the other problems listed in the bullet points below. He failed to lead from the front
and failed to listen to or consult his staff at the middle and lower levels

Phone Banks: The phone bank strategy yielded somewhere in the region of 500,000 contacts when
3 million had been originally projected. I do not have the overall complete cost of this but know it
was somewhere over £600,000 or £1.20 a contact. This turned out much worse than what we were
quoted for the work by a commercial company and was a huge chunk of the ground budget gone.
The reasons for this were partially technology failure, partially a lack of willingness of activists to do
high volumes of calling and also a very unrealistic target being set right at the start in terms of the
numbers of calls that could physically be made. Another major problem was that the public
awareness levels about AV and the referendum were very low so many of the early contacts made
were not Yes or Nos but ‘Don’t Knows’ which were of little use to follow up ‘Get out the Vote’ calls.

Campaign literature: Until sometime in March 2011 the central campaign never had a coherent
literature plan for political parties. When a plan was developed not one single piece of literature
bar the polling day leaflet was produced on time.

The first A4 leaflet took five weeks to produce (unheard of in political circles) after escalating
complaints from activists and regional and central staff. Most of the time regional staff did not get
an opportunity to even look at the material they were supposed to be trying to sell in to local
political parties to delivery before it was already printed.

This massively reduced the goodwill of local constituency parties. When literature did arrive it was
rushed and because many of the Regional Staff had given up on any arriving the local political
parties (mainly Lib Dem but some Green, Labour and UKIP) had not planned literature drops into
their own activity.

Media and comms: At a national level we had a very experienced head of communications who
had extensive links into the lobby and some very useful relationships with newspapers in England
and Scotland.

However our media was too reactive. Every proactive idea came too late, allowing the no
campaign to tar us as the dodgy donor campaign, or the campaign that would allow BNP
supporters more votes. Either we should have got down and dirty with them or totally ignored
them and played the moral high ground yet we fell between both stools and went into reactive
mode which simply played into their hands.

At a regional level our regional staff never received even the most basic of media support. For
instance they would often receive second hand the national press releases hours after the useful
period had passed. For nearly the whole campaign they never received template press releases,
any sort of comms grid and only really received any sort of support on regional media work until
the final two weeks into the short campaign.

Advertising: Whilst not involved in the advertising process I understand that the agency involved in
most of the creative work was disastrous. Not one of the creative concepts designed ever saw the
light of day despite costing the campaign tens of thousands of pounds. There has already been a
report in the Guardian about the giant pin striped bottom, but there were half a dozen more where
that came from. It took months for even a basic concept for advertising to be agreed upon.

Fundraising: For most of the campaign no-one in our central team below senior management level
was told who our head of fundraising was or ever shown a fundraising strategy. When it was asked
about in a full staff meeting it became apparent there wasn’t one. The head of fundraising was
appointed not because she was a professional fundraiser but because she was on the board of
trustees for one of the major funding bodies. She then subsequently charged a £500 per day
consultancy fee and I am unclear how much money she raised. A number of other consultancy
arrangements were made on the campaign at considerable cost to the war chest. This meant things
like the Freepost and above the line advertising suffered badly from lack of funds. The Freepost was
only sent to about 11 million households due to lack of money - yet we never had a professional
fundraiser working on the campaign to raise this money.

Polling: A six figure sum was spent on polling and the original message testing back in August to
conduct a series of polls and focus groups. This was a huge spend and no further focus grouping was
conducted until well into the short campaign when last minute focus groups were pulled together.
This found that one of the key messages that the campaign had run with for months ‘a small change
that makes a big difference’ didn’t even resonate particularly well with the public. But by that point
it was too late.

There are other things to add but overarching all of this are two critical points which make all of the
above less forgivable.

Mistakes are always made, strategies are always changed and referendum campaigns are rare things
so things are always likely to go wrong. It’s not the things going wrong that we should be angry
about it’s when a chorus of voices in the campaign at various levels saying that things were not
working were repeatedly ignored.

Firstly, there were several full regional staff meetings where the staff were at the point of shouting
that the phone banks were not working, the literature was inadequate, the messages weren’t
getting across and that the campaign was dysfunctional. Yet rather than address this and engage
these people, most of the senior staff decided not even to show up to the final regional meeting four
weeks out from the campaign. There was even a five page report, prepared by four of the Regional
Staff, which was given to the head of field ops in December about perceived failings in the campaign.
This got a reaction of anger rather than a willingness to change things.

Secondly, the passion to win and the hard work that should be have been self evident on a campaign
of this magnitude simply wasn’t evident in all of the staff. Partly I think this was because the terrible
way the campaign had been run by the Director had beaten the willingness and drive to win out of
once passionate people. Whilst staff were giving up, volunteers were working their day jobs then
campaigning till their feet were sore in their spare hours, some staff barely worked 9-5 on the Yes
campaign at HQ. Others took long holidays over Easter and over the royal wedding. For people on a
salary in positions of national responsibility to do this in a referendum campaign is unacceptable but
it was never challenged by management. Meanwhile unpaid interns in the central office were
putting in 60 hour weeks and doing an incredible job.
Learning the lessons

Some of the mistakes were down to lack of experience, a confluence of bad luck and hastily thought
through decisions that may not have happened in different circumstances. Some individuals are
clearly to blame, I will not name them but I hope they do decide to apologise to the activists they
let down. Many of the worst mistakes were by well paid people, (including our Director and Deputy
Director) and agencies who have now gone their various ways without having to face the music. I
don’t expect to hear anything more from them. I’m certain I made mistakes myself which I am
happy to be held accountable for. In terms of those left behind, some people who remain
employed or involved took senior positions on the campaign clearly did not have the passion and
drive to win. Other, mostly junior staff were superb and excelled themselves in difficult jobs they
hadn’t done before in a difficult internal environment.

Recriminations aside, what matters now is that the campaign was a long way from being effective.
Big lessons need to be learned from the way in which it was run. Some of the problems stemmed
from the fact that the Yes campaign suffered from the inherent lack of transparency and the
nepotism that afflicts the way long standing funders and pressure groups in this area do things –
the Rowntree Reform Trust, the Electoral Reform Society in particular.

What I hope will come out of this account is a genuine conversation from the Electoral Reform
Society and Unlock Democracy, the Rowntree Funding body and activists from Take Back
Parliament as how to become more professional, open, honest and accountable. As well as taking
an important position on the Yes campaign I have worked with all three organisations in the past. I
know many people who feel the same way I do both inside and outside these organisations but
are afraid to speak up in case they risk their job prospects in the future.

The signs that we can move on are positive. Katie Ghose of the ERS and Peter Facey of Unlock
Democracy were not personally involved in making the mistakes on the campaign and I believe they
are good people. They have a responsibility to change their organisations if such mistakes are not
to be repeated again. I believe the organisations can learn from the yes campaign and move on but
only if the culture within constitutional reform campaigning changes.

My thoughts about what the democracy groups need to change to avoid catastrophes like the Yes
campaign happening in the future are as follows:

1) Unlock Democracy and the ERS need to work better together and put an end to the personal
acrimony that exists between some staff members. Those members of staff who hate the other
organisation with a passion need to get over it and build some bridges. There isn’t enough
money, media interest or grassroots support in this constitutional reform for people to be
fighting their own side. As an example of counter productive organisational competition one
anecdote I’ve heard from the ERS is that whilst the local groups were being built by Take Back
Parliament for the referendum, one senior ERS staff member was more interested in capturing
those groups for the benefit of the Electoral Reform Society rather than constructively working
together to ensure the groups were as numerous and as strong as possible for the soon to be
launched Yes campaign. Whilst the ERS and Unlock Democracy have different remits, on areas
like Lords reform and local government they could easily work more closely together on areas of
common interest. The ERS also needs to expand its remit from its narrow focus on the Single
Transferable Vote now that the referendum is over and the chances of reform are killed for a
decade or more.

2) The two organisations must respect their activists or they will lose them. There are
thousands of people who worked their socks off and they deserved so much better. Often
activist networks are viewed by senior people as nothing more than email lists to be claimed
for one or another organisation. It may be appropriate for some of the networks out there to
merge with each other – but after the referendum debacle first the activists have got to gain
some trust that competent people are going to be running these networks. Second, the local
groups need to be properly supported with materials and money, which will pay dividends in
the future. They also need people to continue to get out of London around the UK to meet
them, train them and listen to them

3) The ERS and Rowntree need to learn how to spend their money effectively, not just
squander it as this profligacy spread into the Yes campaign. Both the ERS and Rowntree have
put millions of pounds into electoral reform campaigns in the last 18 months I have personally
seen hundreds of thousands of pounds of this money wasted on things like big money press
ads or expensive agencies with no clear goal. £75,000 for the ERS to attend a couple of party
conferences or £130,000 for the Power2010 deliberative poll is not cost effective. In contrast
Take Back Parliament survived for 5 months on a £47,000 budget building a national groups
network and we didn’t even spend all of it.

The individuals responsible for this waste appear to have largely covered their tracks behind
them as the boards of both organisations don’t seem competent in managing finance or
understanding necessary levels of campaign expenditure. This cannot continue.

4) The groups need to change their staffing structure and focus to stop being entirely research
and lobbying based to include a genuine campaigning element. They need to recruit staff with
a suitable skill set for these jobs not just appoint existing people within organisations because
they happen to be in the right place at the right time. This happened on the Yes campaign and
it led to some of the poor decision making and the inefficiencies that occurred.

5) The democracy groups as a whole need to invest in grassroots support – and employ
suitable people to actually interact and grow the groups. They can’t just do what they’ve done
before and plonk someone there to run a groups network with no experience, to build from
the level the groups are at now they need decent investment. They also need to cooperate,
not compete, in grassroots networks.

Those changes would go a long way to giving us a better chance next time round. Writing this
may not have been the best things to do in terms of my own relationships with the people who
have to do this and I’m sorry if I upset those who do work hard in the organisations I name – this
is not aimed at you. But I hope they understand that I write this because its too important to get
brushed under the carpet.

So my final message to all those organisations fighting for constitutional reform is that although
some of the problems and the wider environment we fought this campaign in were out of your
hands, telling people we would have lost anyway is not good enough. Reform yourselves first -
then reform the voting system.