Campaigners for electoral reform have been advised to rethink their comms tactics following in-depth research showing that their arguments are falling flat.
With the Alternative Vote referendum in May drawing closer, PRWeek turned to BritainThinks - the research firm set up by Gordon Brown's former pollster Deborah Mattinson - to test the messages on either side of the debate.
BritainThinks polled 2,064 people and found a surprisingly strong lead for the 'No' campaign. However, more than one in five members of the public were undecided.
The research firm then exposed participants to the key messages put out by the two campaigns.
It found that few of the arguments were influencing undecided voters. In particular, the arguments used by the 'Yes' campaign failed to win over any undecided voters.
BritainThinks director Ben Shimshon said: 'Currently, it seems that the No campaign has a more powerful set of messages, tapping into the public sense that electoral reform might be an expensive distraction. The Yes campaign has a bigger challenge because it needs to convince people both that this issue matters, and that what is needed is a change to AV.'
BritainThinks also carried out six focus groups on the subject. Shimson said: 'The arguments put forward by the No campaign were generally better received by focus group participants, particularly arguments which suggest that the winner may not be the candidate with the most first choice votes.
'The other really powerful argument was the cost argument. While the execution of the cost messages often divided opinion in the focus groups, the argument that the money could better be spent elsewhere was powerful.'
The initial poll found 33 per cent in favour of AV and 46 per cent against, with 22 per cent answering 'don't know.' After the first poll, the firm then tested arguments from either side of the debate (see below), before asking the original question for a second time.
Crucially, over the course of the poll, the proportion of people answering 'don't know' saw minimal movement, falling from 22 per cent to 19 per cent. The 'Yes' vote remained stable at 33 per cent, while the 'No' vote increased from 46 per cent to 48 per cent.
NO TO AV
Chairman Rodney Leach previously headed the 'No Euro' and the 'We Want a Referendum' campaigns.
Campaign director Matthew Elliott is on sabbatical from his role as chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance.
Head of press Dylan Sharpe is the former campaign director at Big Brother Watch.
Yes to Fairer Votes
Chair of the six-strong steering committee is Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society. Vice-chair is John Sharkey, the ex-Saatchi & Saatchi MD, who is one of Nick Clegg's closest advisers.
Head of comms Paul Sinclair previously headed Hill & Knowlton's public affairs team.
2,064 - People polled by BritainThinks
32.6% - Were in favour of AV in initial poll
45.6% - Were against AV in initial poll
21.7% - Answered 'don't know' in initial poll
KEY MESSAGES FROM THE 'YES' AND 'NO' CAMPS
TESTING THE MESSAGES
Four comms messages, but how many were convinced?
PRO-AV MESSAGE 1
The Alternative Vote system would mean MPs have to work harder. Under AV, your next MP would have to aim to get more than 50 per cent of the vote to be sure of winning. At present, MPs can win with just one vote out of every three cast.
61% - Pro-AV message 2
The current system is unfair and needs to change. The first past the post system means MPs can be elected on tiny amounts of the vote. In 2005, George Galloway was only voted for by 18 per cent of his constituents, yet still became the MP. The Alternative Vote system would mean many more people's choices are counted.
59% - Anti-AV message 1
Alternative Vote system would be very costly. The change to AV could cost up to £250m of taxpayers' money. We have to think what else that money could be spent on.
64% - Anti-AV message 2
The Alternative Vote system is complex and unfair. In an election, the winner should be the candidate who gets the most votes, but under AV, the candidate who comes second or third on first preferences can end up winning ...
Voters should decide who the best candidate is, not the voting system.
63% - BritainThinks conducted an online poll of 2064 members of the UK public, between 11 and 13 March 2011. Six focus groups were held in Leeds, Birmingham and Edgware between 28 February and 4 March 2011