Dean Russell: The main lesson of the AV campaign is that we must keep things simple

The argument put forward in support of AV was overcomplicated and never really had a strong narrative, says our columnist

Dean Russell
Dean Russell

Looking back on the recent elections and the referendum on alternative voting, I can't help but feel that the widespread publicity generated by the referendum was greater than the public's interest in it. Before I start, I should declare that I was against AV - which, as it turned out, most of the country was too. Even so, I watched with interest, from a communications perspective, the campaigns for and against unfold.

I was out on the street at the time, canvassing for others in the local elections, and it was even more intriguing to find out first-hand what the general public thought of the campaigns.

The media focused mainly on the infighting, political manoeuvring and personalities, rather than on the issue of voting reform.

In the voluntary sector, there was a furore about several charities putting themselves forward to back the 'Yes' campaign before pulling out - as reported in Third Sector.

Personally, I felt the initial move by charities to get so involved was difficult to comprehend - it seemed such a risky manoeuvre. I do not doubt the various organisations'

reasons for doing so; I just failed to see how they could justify such a move to their donors, who might back the charity but disagree with it on AV.

From the doorstep, it was clear to me that decisions on AV were based more on personal views than party ones. So if a political party can't get all of its members to agree whether to support or oppose AV, how could a charity?

To me, it felt like there were three choices in this referendum: yes, no and apathy - with the latter two winning out. Much of the feedback I received while out canvassing was that people were bored with the whole thing. They didn't seem to see the need for a change to the system, and the infighting turned them off politics even more.

Overwhelmingly, though, there was a real lack of understanding about AV. Whatever the 'Yes' campaign was doing, the impression I got from the people I spoke to was that it never really succeeded in getting across why this type of voting reform would benefit the individual.

In my mind, this had a great deal to do with the fact that the argument put forward in support of AV was overcomplicated and never really had a strong narrative. Ultimately, it never fully answered the question "what's in it for me?"

With hindsight, the lessons from the 'Yes' campaign are ones that should be learned across the voluntary sector - especially as they are often cause-related.

In particular, don't assume that your cause really has the interest of the public - instead, work hard to make them interested.

And stay focused - don't allow arguments to distract from your core message, otherwise you might end up with headlines, but not the result that you want.

The story that best summed up the campaign in my mind came from a friend. He overheard a woman passionately and intelligently explaining the ins and outs of AV for a good 10 minutes.

At the end, her friend turned and asked: "Are you voting for AV?" "No," replied the first woman, looking exasperated, "it's too complicated."

So perhaps this is a lesson for any campaign - no matter how complex or important the message, always keep it simple.

Dean Russell is director, digital practice, at Fleishman-Hillard and a Conservative district councillor

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