Browse Category: winning referendums


Boris backs Vote Leave

Boris says OUT

London Mayor Boris Johnson joined Vote Leave and the OUT campaign today. Often foolishly written off as a blond airhead, this statement has depth and thought. I am not in a position to call anything or anybody intellectual – but this piece contains more intellect in the first paragraph than the all the US Republican Presidential candidate debates so far!

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Gove Vote Leave

Conviction politician Gove puts country ahead of his leader

Conviction politician Gove Goes for Leave

He did it. He actually did it. Deputy Editor of The Times. Friend, ally and Lieutenant to David Cameron on so many issues. Reforming Minister within a Cameron government. And, stealing shamelessly from Andrew Neil, he has decided to go out on a limb and put his country first.

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Scotland voted NO despite the No campaign, not because of it.

ID-10057769I have just returned from nearly 3 weeks in Washington. It is a political geek’s dream city with iconic everywhere! It was bizarre reading and listening and hearing about how Lincoln saved the Union while at home the Union of the United Kingdom seemed about to end. Now, the long road towards the Scottish referendum campaign has now come to an end. Everyone in the rest of the UK is relieved – I bet the voters in Scotland are even more relieved that its over – if not with the result. A clear victory for the anti-independence side as 55% of voters cast a ‘No’ vote. As Westminster politicians begin to squabble over constitutional detail it is important to assess the campaign and why the ‘No’ vote won.

The Scottish referendum campaign was always going to be unique. Never before in UK history has a group of people had to look so deep into their national character and identity and truly consider their beliefs about the future of themselves and their country.

Never before has a political campaign in the UK had such attention and involvement from around the world – national US channels mentioned the first result in Clackmannanshire – which has a population of under 40 000! Politicians, business leaders, celebrities and international heads of state all had the opportunity to chime in on the Scottish independence campaign.

From the world of culture, JK Rowling, Sean Connery, David Bowie, Brian Cox, Alex Ferguson, Annie Lenox, and many more all expressed their opinion on Scottish independence. International diplomats and foreign politicians had an opportunity to voice their opinion – including President Obama, Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang,  Hilary Clinton, even Pope Francis.


The Scottish referendum campaign was always going to be unique, a mixture of arguments from the heart and from the head. However Scotland voted the way it did despite the No campaign, not because of it.


12 months ago the polls indicated that the No vote was a comfortable 20 points ahead of the Yes vote, with 15% Don’t Knows. Throughout the next 11 months the number of estimated No voters remained amazingly stable in the polls. This allowed the Better Together campaign to do the worst thing that a campaign can do – it became complacent, overly confident that it would win. Accepted wisdom, such as there is, is that a No is slightly easier to win – that change is harder to trigger. But that is no reason to for complacency – especially with such a high predicted turnout and a pseudo-despot-country 97% registered to vote.

As the No campaign sat back in assuring themselves of imminent victory, the Yes campaign continued to work hard. The number of Don’t Knows began to slowly turn into Yes votes, won over by the arguments of Alex Salmond. Then finally the shock poll published weeks before the referendum that put Yes ahead of No was enough to kick the No campaign out of its slumber. Suddenly Labour MPs were being bussed up to Scotland and the three main party leaders were out on the streets campaigning. If it was not for that one poll that put the Yes vote ahead, the No campaign may have lost. But not because of NO – that poll could have caused complacent no voters to splutter into their tea and biscuits and get out and vote. They let it run too close to the wire but that poll acted like the best GOTV tool ever.


When your opponents are portraying you as the out-of-touch Westminster elite, the worst strategy to adopt would be to patronisingly and paternally argue that Scotland would not be able to govern itself and would not be given special treatment from the same Westminster elite you are trying to distance yourself from. That was the point of YES! Yet this is what the Better Together campaign did.  George Osbourne warned of economic hardship in an independent Scotland and stated that Scotland would not be able to use the Pound if they voted Yes. However being told what they cannot do by a Conservative Chancellor surprisingly failed to go down well amongst the Scottish voters.


For the majority of the campaign the tone of the No side was painfully negative. This was not the policy details, but instead the tone of the message. As the SNP talked of the exciting opportunities an independent Scotland would have, Better Together continued to say what the Scottish people would not be able to do if independent. Like a parent disciplining an unruly child, the No campaign talked down to the Scottish people. Alex Salmond played on the emotions of the Scottish character, while Alistair Darling used negative language. Weirdly it was left to Gordon Brown at the end of the campaign to passionately tell the positive message of the United Kingdom – a job that he did brilliantly well!

For years to come, Better Together will be an example of how not to run a campaign. Inability to understand the emotion of the voters, talking down to the electorate and being too self-assured and blindly confident nearly caused the breakup of the United Kingdom.

The result of the referendum may be explained by age-old head over heart thinking – the Scottish people weighing up the pros and cons of independence and coming to a logical decision. Not one driven by emotion.

For whatever reason the Scottish people voted the way they did, Alistair Darling and the Better Together campaign cannot take responsibility for it.


See head of the No to AV referendum campaign, Matthew Elliot’s view on the referendum



Gordon Brown’s speech saved the Union

Here’s my analysis of Gordon Brown’s impassioned and rabble-rousing speech he delivered last week before the referendum.

The effect of Social Media on the campaign 

Some ideas on the importance and the effect of social media on the outcome of the campaign, interestingly it was not the strength of the social media strategy that won the referendum.


Image courtesy of creativedoxfoto /

Gordon Brown's speech saves the Union.

I never thought I would write a blog post with this title. In fact I disagree with Gordon Brown on most things and when I heard that he was to be a part of the No campaign I groaned. However Gordon Brown’s speech changed all of this.

Yesterday, with passion reminiscent of William Wallace declaring the freedom of the Scottish people, Gordon Brown mustered up every ounce of passion to defend the union.

Brown has never been admired for his speeches. He has never been one for rabble rousing speeches, impassioned sermons or emotional pleads. The former PM has in the past given speeches with the same characteristics as a sex-less scarecrow. He had the habit of listing policy details in the most lack-lustre way possible. Brown’s speeches consistently lacked passion, drive and enthusiasm.

Finally, yesterday, the passion of Gordon Brown came out. The ideas and the energy that make up his political ideology, the drive that got him to the top of UK politics all came out. Yesterday Gordon Brown was a man on a mission. He had beliefs that he needed to say – he had ideas that he had to get out. He needed to do what he needed to do to save his country, not his career.

No longer was he a politician being wheeled out to give a speech one way or the other. Effectively side-lined from the campaign up until recently, Gordon Brown was back. In a way that I had never seen him before.

The passion and energy of the speech was there from the first sentence and it rose and rose as Brown continued. This was a man in a rush to say what he believed. Gordon Brown did not wait for applause – he seemed frankly irritated by it. He was there to give a message, to explain his ideas, to save the union, not to receive praise and a pat on the back. Which is what good politicians should be like.

I doubt Gordon Brown’s speech was written by a speech writer although it was certainly well crafted. It was natural, pure and from the heart. Gordon Brown spoke with the fluency of a man whose concrete ideas have built up and developed over decades – this was the moment when these ideas came out for all to see.

Social justice, the NHS, securing a future for the next generation, pride in your country, Scottish history, British history – Brown covered them all. The speech seeped with emotion – feelings dripped off of every word that came out of his mouth.

The speech took the crowd by surprise, expecting to see a droning, mono-toned ex-Prime Minister reeling off the over-used lines of the campaign so far. But instead they got this – a paper-free, eloquent speech.

When I  heard that Gordon Brown was to take a bigger role in the Better Together campaign I, as well as pretty much everyone else, thought that was the final nail in the coffin of the union. However, along with the Queen’s almost-intervention and some of the campaign ads,  Gordon Brown may have just done enough for the No vote to win.

This was not a state of the union address, it was the saving of the union address.




Will Social Media Win the Scottish Referendum?

IndyCampaign Social MediaWill social media win the Scottish referendum? Facebook says that there have been over 10 million comments, posts, likes and shares about Scottish independence in the month of August. The Yes campaign has nearly 300,000 Facebook likes and nearly 100,000 followers on Twitter. In comparison the No campaign is trailing behind with over 200,000 Facebook likes and only 40,000 followers on Twitter.

But how far do these figures go to predict the outcome of the referendum? Does chatter on social media encourage people to head to the polling station? Do Twitter followers and Facebook likes mean votes? How many are voters and how many are Brits without a vote or media?

The independence campaign is unique in the way that 16 and 17 year olds are able to vote. This age group is more receptive to social media activity than their elders. Young people are less swayed by politicians making grand speeches on the 10 o clock news – they are influenced by being appealed to through digestible information, easily accessible through social media. Is social media a silver bullet for middle-aged politicos like Alistair Darling or Alex Salmond who have to court these young voters and persuade them to come out and vote?

But will social media win the Scottish referendum when it comes down to it?

In the final week of the campaign the SNP announced that they would be targeting pensioners through the post. In the most important week of the campaign it is clear where the SNP believe that the campaign comes down to – not the tech-savvy youth but the reliable elderly who can be counted on to get out and vote.

Unlike most campaigns, in this campaign social media is not needed to encourage people to go to the polling station because a staggering 97 per cent of Scottish adults have already registered to vote. Nor is social media being used to keep the issue relevant and in the news – the traditional media have no choice but to cover it.

But it is possible that social media is being used by each side to have a slight advantage over the other. In a campaign as close as this one, both sides need any advantage they can get. Social media may just be enough to push one side above the other.


Image courtesy of creativedoxfoto /



What makes a Political Legacy

I drove to a friend’s funeral in the Midlands yesterday. I have been to a lot of funerals in my life – this was my first to a Labour politician’s funeral. On the way I got a premonition of the size of Lord Bilston’s funeral when I saw the street signs on the dual carriageway to Bilston. The town where he was born, the constituency he represented and the name he carried in the House of Lords. Bilston.

LordBilstonDennis Turner aka Lord Bilston was a Labour Party trade unionist, councillor, MP and Peer who I met and worked with on the NO2AV referendum campaign. The word plotting is overused but he, Lord Bruce Grocott and George Howarth MP and I plotted, schemed and worked together for a solid month – the result being the extraordinary alliance between the Conservative and Labour Parties to defeat the Lib Dems and their proposed Alternative Vote. Without the input of these three men we would never have got Labour’s big beasts (John Prescott, John Reid, Margaret Becket, David Blunkett and Charlie Falconer) on board.

But,  intense and busy as it was, working with these tribal political opponents was great fun. Bruce told me yesterday that he had enjoyed that campaign more than any other and Dennis certainly took great delight in reminiscing about the campaign whenever we saw each other in Strangers Bar. Bruce, George and I were together again yesterday to bury a friend.

The church was packed and the service was long. 1 hour and 20 minutes long. There was standing room only at the back and people waiting patiently outside for the whole 80 minutes. Luckily the sun shone. These were not political people – not duty attendees. We estimated that there were 750-800 people there. It was, inevitably for a man with over 40 years of public service, a political funeral – with some political speeches, a number of Peers, former Cabinet Ministers and Labour MPs attending and therefore missing PMQs. The coffin bearers wore red ties. But – all the speeches were real and personal and I bet they were all written by the people giving them. They were raw – as funeral speeches should be. One of the best stories was how teenage chorister Dennis had led a strike of the choir – timed on a Saturday just before 3 weddings were due to take place.

Two of the speakers mentioned the fact that walking through Bilston with Dennis took ages. Both explained that he literally knew everyone, their names, their kids names and even their dogs names – a plus for a dog lover like me.  But the line that really got me yesterday was “Dennis was one of us”.

Much is made in both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party of candidates being “parachuted” into seats and how this doesn’t go down well with the voters. Research has shown that an ACTIVE candidate can negate an incumbent’s advantage if selected over 2 years before an election and I have candidates like that right now. Much is also made of how Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney 81-19 on the question “Does he understand/get people like me?” But what a great line that “Dennis was one of us” is. What an epitaph. What a summary.

Politics is important business and we need good and competent people in politics. They can’t all come from within their own communities. Or could they? Maybe if they did we would have more politicians getting over 700 local people, non-duty attendees, coming to their funeral. Funeral attendance is clearly not the only test of a political legacy or a sign of whether a politician made an impact on people, in legislation etc – but it is a human one. And politics is at its best when it’s about people.

Picture from

As this article makes clear – I wasn’t the only Conservative there.

winning referendums

Messaging Mistakes by YES

Messaging Mistakes by YES

winning referendums

No campaign is perfect. Ever. External factors play a role. Mistakes are made. Some you are forced into. Most you make yourself.

Pat Cash’s coach, Ian Barclay used to say to Pat before every match “Just get the ball over the net one more time than he does.” Eliminating unforced errors is as important in campaigns as avoiding double faults is in tennis. Below are a few of my ideas about some unforced errors on the part of the YES campaign in the AV referendum.


1. Know what to do. And when. I understand that YES spent a lot on polls in the very early stages of the campaign. Early money spent on polishing and testing messages is money well spent. Conducting early polls when nobody is listening is a waste of money.

2. It’s not nice to be nasty about the opposition. Calling Beckett, Blunkett and Prescott dinosaurs might have appeared a good rabble rousing line to the chatteratti but it alienated voters and Labour MPs alike. Gratuitous negative personal attacks – the dinosaur pic with Griffin, the Nazi smear and the “Goebbels” attack – alienate the public. They also helped us strengthen Labour Parliamentary support. These attacks also seemed a little strange coming from a campaign that wanted to “clean up politics”. (Two notes on negative attacks: 1.) Attacking a policy or a voting system is not a negative attack. 2.) Negative attacks on people only work when they reinforce the audience’s existing sentiment or are explicitly and immediately/recently provable or are a relevant case study. They are heightened when the audience feel emotionally involved.)

3. Be believable The YES arguments, while all faithfully recited, “Have a nice day” sound-alikes, were candy floss arguments that momentarily sounded good – but they had no substance or retail resonance. They were outcome arguments. The “What”, that smugly ignored the pithy and evidence-based “How”. It was a little like saying “Buy this car – it’s faster and safer than that one.” without showing any evidence for these claims. The public simply didn’t believe they would deliver what they promised. The spokespeople and use of celebrities didn’t help here at all.

4. Play in your own playground. Our first focus group flagged up cost as a strong argument. When we released our cost estimate the YES campaign went ballistic. For weeks at a time. They did our job for us. They gave our costings coverage and cemented the figure in the minds of the public. We could not believe our luck. They should have admitted AV might cost a bit more – “Don’t all upgrades?” – and then used the opportunity to sell the benefits of THEIR upgrade – all at “less than a pint” £1 per person. Instead of dechunking, trivialising and disregarding our £250 MILLION costing and focusing on why and how AV is wonderful, they broadcast our argument far and wide and were mute on their own territory.

5. Speak to people – not demographic groups. The Benjamin Zephaniah leaflet caused outrage in and out of London, emphasised the “luvvie” support for their campaign and helped to headline the debate amongst minority communities. People like bespoke and personalised. They don’t like being put in boxes or patronised. Big mistake. (Also – be very wary of those who promise to “deliver” certain demographic turf. Very, very rarely is this ever true on any scale. And doing so is lazy, risky and undemocratic.)

6. Be who you are The YES campaign successfully kept Lib Dem MPs out of the media in the early stages of the campaign. We were driven mad because we were constantly asked by the media for MP spokespeople while YES would always provide a supposed”civvie”. We put out briefings high-lighting the extraordinarily close links between the YES campaign and the Lib Dems which were hardly covered. And then the clouds opened and it rained and rained and rained. In the final weeks of the campaign, when people were actually (almost) listening, you could hardly switch on a TV without seeing a Lib Dem MP jumping up and down excitedly about the campaign. In doing so, they comprehensively unmasking the YES campaign as a Lib Dem vehicle. The fact that this resonated and blended with their own rhetoric about MPs being only out for themselves, transformed the feeling on the streets into a tangible “AV is from the Lib Dems, for the Lib Dems.” At the same time David Cameron and John Reid were sharing platforms and talking like grown ups about Britain. It was like the opposition were being shot by their own bullets. Utter magic.

7. Love, Salute and Acknowledge Lady Luck. She loves a campaign role. The 2010 Labour leadership election and the week that followed was the only experience of AV that most people in the UK had. Whenever one of our spokespeople said that the loser could win under AV, many people remembered Ed M vs. David M. This message resonated with people and reinforced what they believed. Of course, David M as leader could have had other implications too. No-one’s mistake. Just bad luck. But it was caused by AV.


1. Hire people who can deliver – business before pleasure. YES seemed to concentrate on their friends amongst “progressive alliance” members, some charities and their media allies. Anyone who wouldn’t have qualified for an invite to the chatteratti dining table was excluded – or only approached in a tick-box fashion or by spammy impersonal email. Cross party alliances and trust need personal contact, persistence and time. I am not aware of any Conservative MPs being actively courted like this. It seems the same was true for UKIP – even though they were declared as YES! This focus on “friendlies only” was a strange way of going about things for a cause that criticised MPs for being tribal and not reaching out to everyone.

2. Court, love and cherish your salespeople. They are the distribution channels for your message. And in politics, after the media, MPs are without doubt the best salespeople. Firstly they are experienced at skilled at selling issues, secondly they have an existing “customer” data base of people who have an interest in politics and thirdly, they have a existing GOTV infrastructure. Ignoring the people who control the most widespread, political collection of databases in the country who also happen to have an existing GOTV infrastructure was madness. Attempting to create an alternative was money and effort wasted. Failing to nurture the relationship with your existing messengers is as bad as not courting new ones.

3. Don’t mess with your Messengers! The first YES Public Election Broadcast had annoyed YES MPs and energised NO MPs. When the “Lazy MPs” YES leaflet came out, NO MPs stepped up their efforts even more and YES MPs either swapped sides, took their names off the YES advert in the Guardian or simply dumped or forgot to deliver the YES leaflets.

4. Show up in person. And smile! Email and social media are hugely important in modern campaigns.But initial personal contact with messengers of all descriptions (media, salespeople, staff, spokespeople, volunteers) is still the starting point. Social media campaigns are electronic recommendations and referrals and more – but based on existing relationships.

5. Know your target. And then talk to them. All of them. Every voter in the UK was a target. Using Twitter to reach people who don’t use twitter is as useful as writing a letter to someone and not posting it. YES was supposed to be about making MPs reach out more. But their apparent decision to focus on social media, younger people and leafleting only selected areas was undemocratic and electorally flawed. Obama’s campaign was heavily internet based. But it also reached out to everyone, both geographically, demographically and politically. And it also had a huge walking, talking, breathing army of precinct Captains and campaigners on the ground.

6. Celebs sell. Somethings. Sometimes. If you want to sell an aspirational consumer product (fashion, sports goods etc) celebrities can be useful. And very occasionally they are good in politics. Joanna Lumley was brilliant in the Ghurka campaign. But that was a campaign that resonated with people in the pub and her very personal connection with the Ghurkas, via her father, made it real. I am not sure that the endorsements of the YES celebs, or the way they were deployed, helped the YES cause at all. Do people really make important political decisions by blindly copy and pasting the views of their favourite entertainer?

7. Respect and understand the Media Selling stuff for you is not their job. They have their own jobs to do. They are humans too and deserve bespoke and personalised treatment. They resent the self-interested, the pushy and the self-righteous – and they do not like feeling used or exploited. Even in 2011, good personal long term relationships still count. Understand them, appreciate them and help them do their job.


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