Nick Clegg’s irrelevance to loss of AV vote

by Stephen Tall on May 15, 2011

How important was Nick Clegg to the loss of the referendum to reform the electoral system? Very important if you believe this anonymous source quoted recently in The Guardian (hat-tip to James Graham):

Last night a senior source in the campaign for the alternative vote admitted they knew “very early on” that there was no chance of winning the referendum and that Clegg had become part of the problem: “Every time Clegg spoke about AV our polling numbers went into free-fall. We knew from very early on, before the new year, that we couldn’t win, our message wasn’t getting through and the Liberal Democrats in the whole were worse than useless. Clegg was toxic and everything [Chris] Huhne did in criticising the Tories just put the attention on the political spat – made it a Clegg versus Cameron affair. Utterly unwinnable.”

However, the polling evidence suggests Nick Clegg was the least of the Yes campaign’s problems. ComRes has just released figures showing its research of the reasons why those who intended to vote ‘no’ were against AV — and it shows how relatively unimportant was the role of the Lib Dem leader:

  • The fact that Nick Clegg supports AV:

  • Relevant to some/large extent 22%; Not at all relevant 78%

  • I don’t fully understand the implications of AV:

  • Relevant to some/large extent 46%; Not at all relevant 53%

  • I support change but AV is not the right alternative:

  • Relevant to some/large extent 54%; Not at all relevant 46%

  • I don’t see the need for change:

  • Relevant to some/large extent 67%; Not at all relevant 33%

As ComRes’s chairman Andrew Hawkins notes:

“This table shows that Nick Clegg wasn’t the problem; rather it was the failure of the Yes campaign to establish first the need for change at all, and secondly that AV was the right alternative.”

Incidentally, for all the fanfare of the No campaign’s having ‘ruthlessly followed best practice in market research’ (to quote ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie), it suggests they too over-estimated how relevant voters would regard Nick Clegg’s support.

Bottom line in a referendum: reformers have to make a compelling case for change, especially in a nation with an in-built conservative majority such as the UK. In neither of the UK’s two referendums has the status quo been overturned.