And so to County Hall, up a staircase, down several hallways – past screens showing “Clash of the Titans” – to the launch of the NO2AV campaign.
The Yes campaign had yesterday rolled out backers such as Oscar hopefuls Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter and other celebs including Eddie Izzard and Joanna Lumley.
The No campaign is rather less starry: today’s event featured scientist Robert Winston (pictured), Taxpayers Alliance founder Matthew Elliott and Jane Kennedy, the former Labour MP. They have two potent arguments on their side, which they mustered today in defence of the first-past-the-post system.
1] Nick Clegg. The plan is still to capitalise on Mr Clegg’s unpopularity by reminding voters at every opportunity that AV is the deputy prime minister’s idea. There will be posters with his face on later in the spring, I’m told.
2] Money. This is a vital element of the campaign. “250 million reasons to say no to AV: Why our country can’t afford it” was the headline. It’s a powerful argument given the austere financial backdrop. They have drawn up posters with various public sector workers, such as a soldier (“he needs bulletproof vests not the AV system”) to illustrate what they see as a giant waste of money.
Their estimate for the total cost of the referendum and its implementation will apparently be £250m: which could instead pay for “8,000 nurses, 60,000 school places or 36,000 hip replacements”.
They break this down into 1] the £82m cost of the referendum, 2] £9m for voter education ahead of the plebiscite, 3] the cost of electronic vote counting at £90m-£130m and 4] £26m for subsequent voter education.
Don’t be surprised to see the Yes campaign challenge this calculation.
Firstly, £82m will be spent/wasted on the vote (and £9m on voter education) whether the public says yes or no.
Secondly, the No campaign is presuming that Britain will need electronic vote counting, because this occurred in the Scottish parliamentary elections of 2007. But this doesn’t take place in Australia, which has the system.
The Yes campaign has already rolled out Antony Green, an authority on Australian elections. He says: “We’ve used AV for 90 years at all levels of government. And Australia has never used voting machines to conduct its elections.” Conversely, counting machines are used in many US elections, which have the first-past-the-post system.
Meanwhile Mr Elliott (pictured) was put on the spot by Patrick Wintour of the Guardian over the issue of financing. If he believed so strongly in transparency, why will we not discover who is funding NO2AV (or its opponents*) until months after the poll? As Elliott stalled, Robert Winston intervened, admitting he hadn’t known about this quirk of the rules – and suggesting that maybe the backers should be published.
* The Yes campaign has gathered more than £2m although much of this is from the Electoral Reform Society and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. The No group is still somewhere below the £1m mark.