AV cheerleaders fear the debate

With just a week until referendum polling day, the result may already have been largely decided through the postal votes cast. It has been a difficult campaign for both sides, culminating in abusive name-calling from some 'Yes' campaigners who have revealed a rather self-righteous intolerance of free debate. I am reminded of that old Monty Python sketch in which a man goes into a clinic to pay to have 'an argument' but accidentally ends up in the room marked 'abuse'.

AV debate: George Eustice
AV debate: George Eustice

Public understanding of AV started from a low base and the debate has been hindered by apathy among both the public and media. This was the referendum that no-one really wanted but it was forced on the public as the price of the coalition. Both campaigns have struggled to be heard and to get their events and arguments reported in the media.

Polling during March - reported by PRWeek - concluded that none of the arguments on either side of the debate had much resonance with the public. That is largely because people knew nothing about the system or how it worked and so they were unable to connect any of the arguments with the question.

One thing the polling did show was that, although opinion was soft and volatile on both sides, the more people knew about the system, the more sceptical they became. The 'No' campaign concluded in the end that the most powerful thing it could do was to explain how AV works and compare it with the current system. This formed the basis of an advert in The Times and was a consistent feature of all literature afterwards.

In general, debate has been the friend of the No campaign but the enemy of the Yes campaign. The greatest threat facing the No campaign was that the debate would never get going and that people would instead succumb to glib slogans about MPs' expenses. Meanwhile, the Yes campaign's greatest fear was that it would be forced to explain how AV works, so it tried to generate heat rather than light and to divert attention from the arguments with a theatrical row played out in the media.

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

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