'Yes to AV' messages fail to resonate with public

Campaigners for electoral reform have been advised to rethink their comms tactics following in-depth research showing that their arguments are falling flat.

Poster campaign: AV referendum in May
Poster campaign: AV referendum in May

With the Alternative Vote referendum 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, suggesting that its negative campaigning may be paying off.

Ads by the No to AV campaign have courted controversy by suggesting that implementing the alternative voting system would suck £250m from the NHS and the armed forces.  The Yes to Fairer Votes campaign is yet to unveil billboard ads, but its messaging to date has argued that the current system is unfair and that a change in the electoral system will make MPs work harder.

After the poll, the research firm exposed participants to the key messages put out by the two sides’ campaign messages (see below) before conducting a second survey of the same voters. Crucially, the final exercise found the ‘Yes’ campaign was failing 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.’


The polling data

The Alternative Vote referendum is due to take place on 5 May. Until now, most polls have shown the Yes and No camps with similar levels of support, but Britain Thinks found 46 per cent opposed to AV and just 33 per cent in favour, with 22 per cent answering ‘don’t know’.

The research firm then exposed the 2,000 participants to the key messages put out by the two campaigns before carrying out its second poll, re-asking the orginal question, which found both sides struggling to influence undecided voters.

In particular, the arguments used by the ‘Yes’ campaign failed to win over any undecided voters: over the course of the polling, 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.


Focus group findings

BritainThinks also carried out six focus groups on the subject.

The ‘No’ campaign’s posters arguing that the £250 million that would be spent on AV would be better used providing bulletproof vests provoked mixed reactions. One of the less enthusiastic focus group members said: ‘That’s disgraceful, it’s nonsense that AV will directly affect the armed forces budgets or harm small children.’

But 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.’

Focus group participants were also exposed to ‘Yes’ campaign posters urging them to vote Yes to ‘shake up Parliament’ and ‘make your MP work harder’. Shimshon said: ‘Whilst there is strong support for both of these sentiments, there was simply no comprehension of why alternative voting would help.’

One typical focus group participant responded to a ‘Yes’ campaign poster: ‘I agree that Parliament needs shaking up – but that should be about fewer MPs and the way they work, not how we vote them in.’


Testing the messages

BritainThinks tested four arguments from either side of the debate on the sample of 2,000 adults, asking participants to rate each one for how convincing they found it as an argument:

Pro-AV argument 1 ‘The Alternative Vote system would mean MPs have to work harder. Under the Alternative Vote, your next MP would have to aim to get more than 50% of the vote to be sure of winning. At present, MPs can win with just one vote out of every three cast.’

61 per cent said this argument was convincing

Pro-AV argument 2 ‘The Alternative Vote system would give you a bigger say on who your local MP is. Ranking candidates means you can say who you’d like most, second, third and so on. So even if your favourite candidate doesn’t win, you’ve still had a say.’

58 per cent said this argument was convincing

Pro-AV argument 3 ‘The Alternative Vote system will help to tackle the ‘safe seats’ and ‘jobs for life’ culture amongst MPs. Too many MPs have seats for life. The Alternative Vote system would force complacent politician to sit up and listen and reach out to the communities they seek to represent.’

60 per cent said this argument was convincing

Pro-AV argument 4 ‘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, for example, George Galloway was only voted for by 18.4% of his constituents, yet he still became the MP. The Alternative Vote system would mean many more peoples’ choices are counted..’

59 per cent said this argument was convincing

Anti-AV argument 1 ‘Switching to the Alternative Vote system would be very costly. The change to Alternative Vote could cost up to £250 million of taxpayers money. We have to think what else that money could be spent on.’

64 per cent said this argument was convincing

Anti-AV argument 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 the Alternative Vote, the candidate who comes second or third on first preferences can end up winning when peoples second or even third choices are taken into account. Voters should decide who the best candidate is, not the voting system.’

63 per cent said this argument was convincing

Anti-AV argument 3 ‘The Alternative Vote is an untested system. It is only used in three countries in the world - Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.’

54 per cent said this argument was convincing

Anti-AV argument 4 ‘The Alternative Vote is a "politican’s fix". The Alternative Vote system leads to more hung parliaments, more backroom deals and more broken promises. Instead of the voters choosing the government, politicians would hold power..’

59 per cent said this argument was convincing

Shimshon said: ‘People we spoke to are looking for clear explanations of whether AV is fairer than the existing system or not, but what they’re getting from both sides are arguments that seem less central to the debate – the cost of the changeover, or the impact on how MPs engage with their voters. Those arguments might well do the job of motivating those who already know where they stand, but they won’t help waverers make up their minds.’


BritainThinks conducted an online poll of 2064 members of the UK public, between 11 and 13 March 2011. Data were weighted to be representative of the UK adult population.

It began by showing participants the referendum question 'At present, the UK uses the "first past the post" system to elect MPs to the House of Commons.  Should the "alternative vote" system be used instead?'

Britian Thinks then tested four arguments from either side of the debate, asking participants to rate each one for how convincing they found it as an argument for or against switching to the Alternative Vote system. After participants had been exposed to the campaign messages, it re-asked the referendum question.

In addition, six focus groups were held in Leeds, Birmingham and Edgware between 28 February and 4 March 2011.

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