Beware inflatable white elephants

White Elephant

Ceri John learns what makes a successful referendum campaign

Last week inhabitants of the Cardiff Bay bubble gathered at the Pierhead for an evening devoted to the subject of how a successful referendum campaign should be run. With the Pierhead having been given a new lease of life by the National Assembly, it was a fitting location as attention turns once again to the question of the timing of the referendum on granting the institution primary lawmaking powers.

The panel, assembled by the Bevan foundation, was a distinguished one: Dr Matt Qvortrup, a leading European expert on referenda; Nigel Smith, Chair of the 1997 Yes campaign in Scotland; Quintin Oliver, former Director of the Yes campaign in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement Referendum; and Daran Hill, National Organiser with the 1997 Yes for Wales campaign.

Following a stimulating discussion that took in Abba, Charles de Gaulle and inflatable elephants as reference points, it became clear that there is much to ponder for those concerned with securing a Yes vote in the coming referendum. As the audience heard, even the best-laid plans can go wrong. There is no substitute for a well-planned and well-executed campaign.

Preparations must be made before the campaign begins proper. Coalition building is essential. As Daran Hill pointed out, the support of the Welsh Conservatives (whose attitudes towards devolution have transformed since 1997) could be a decisive factor in tilting the balance in favour of a Yes vote in the upcoming referendum.

At the same time, getting an effective cross-party campaign together will not be not easy. Parties which are normally rivals that find themselves on the same side of a particular issue could be unwilling to pool money in a campaign if it means depleting their election coffers. And that is not to mention the inevitable unwillingness to co-operate if parties are fighting election and referendum campaigns that will be decided on the same day.

Celebrity endorsement must be handled with care, and should not be relied upon in lieu of the presence of a clear message if indeed it is to be used at all. This tactic backfired during the Swedish referendum on entering the Euro in 2003, On that occasion the Yes campaign employed Bjorn and Benny of Abba fame, with whom the ‘ordinary Svenson’ (or Joe Bloggs to those uninitiated in Swedish slang) could not identify.

Having an authentic and meaningful message is critical. Investment in solid benchmark polling must be made to ensure that the message is one that will resonate around the average breakfast table. As well as having a solid platform themselves, campaigners must be ready to undermine and rebut opposition arguments swiftly and comprehensively. Equally, opinion formers and the media should be well briefed on the issues and the referendum process. This last is a crucial issue in Wales in light of the media deficit within Wales itself and the indifference (and occasional ignorance) of the UK media toward Welsh issues.

It’s not all about outspending the opposition and developing a cast-iron case. Sometimes a referendum can be defined by just one iconic image, as was the case with the referendum on the North East England regional Assembly in 2004. Over time the most striking (and unwelcome) presence at many Labour-organised Yes events in that campaign was an inflatable white elephant, used by the No campaign to crystallise its message to great effect.

Once the message has been crafted and the campaign up and running, the next and final challenge is getting people out to vote. Over-confidence in this regard can be fatal. Referendums can be lost through unintended abstentions on the part of voters who believe the outcome is not in doubt. An answer must be readied for those who will undoubtedly ask ‘why are you bothering me with this referendum now?’

Those who do bother to come out to vote don’t always answer the question on the ballot paper. In a situation where the status quo is undesirable (such as in times of recession for example), voters may be psychologically more inclined to vote for change. The audience heard how referendums held early in a government’s term and at the apex of its popularity tend to be won, with reference to the use of Tony Blair in the 1998 Northern Irish referendum at which point Blair, himself a brilliant campaigner, was at the height of his powers.

All in all, then, there is cause for optimism but plenty of cautionary tales for those in favour of a Yes vote here in Wales. As we have seen from Carwyn Jones’ announcement last week, the timing of the Welsh referendum will be a serious bone of contention between competing forces from now until the date is finally decided. If the referendum is held on the same day as the Assembly election in 2011 – a proposal that was met with very little, if any support from the conference panel – that date could have major implications for the result.

Ceri John is an Account Manager at Communications Agency StrataMatrix.

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