George Eustice: All to play for in AV campaigns

This year will see the first national referendum in Britain for 36 years as we go to the polls to decide whether to replace our current voting system with the Alternative Vote.

All to play for in AV Campaigns: George Eustice
All to play for in AV Campaigns: George Eustice

The rival campaigns have their work cut out motivating public interest and getting media coverage for their arguments rather than seeing everything reported through the prism of 'what it means for the coalition'.

Referendum campaigns are unlike traditional elections. They have a 'wild card' nature. In an election, most voters have already decided and the parties focus their efforts on floating voters. In a referendum, far fewer people have preconceived views and so tend to make their mind up during the campaign. This is particularly true for obscure issues such as electoral reform on which most people don't have a strong view. In the 2004 North East assembly referendum, an early lead for the 'yes' campaign turned into a crushing defeat by polling day.

Referendums are principally about issues. Broad campaigns with wide appeal are crucial but voters are reluctant to take their cue from individual political leaders. Even as he basked in his 1997 landslide victory, Tony Blair suffered a close shave in the Welsh devolution referendum. No wonder he ducked the chance to hold a referendum on the euro.

In a referendum debate where there is confusion and opinion is volatile, the campaigning adage that 'message matters most' will be more salient than ever. The 'yes' campaign has so far attempted to portray itself as the 'anti-politician' campaign. It will find this hard to sustain given that AV was demanded by the Liberal Democrats and the referendum is the result of a classic back-room political stitch-up. The 'no' campaign bases its argument around the clarity of our existing system versus the confusion that AV could cause.

The 'yes' side starts with a narrow lead but the more people know, the more sceptical they become and if people are unsure, they tend to vote for the status quo.

It will be a fascinating debate.

George Eustice is Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth and a former press secretary to David Cameron

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