Inside the Yes and No AV referendum campaigns

  • Published
A ballot box on a union flag
Image caption,
On 5 May, the whole of the UK will vote in a referendum for the first time since 1975

The 5 May referendum on the Westminster voting system may have failed to ignite public enthusiasm so far, yet passions are running high among campaigners on both sides.

In what is fast becoming a bitter contest between the two official campaigns, the "No to AV" side has accused one of the main financial backers of "Yes to Fairer Votes" of standing to profit commercially from the introduction of the Alternative Vote (AV).

Meanwhile, the "Yes" side has hit back, attacking "No" for failing to name its funding sources, despite a pledge to do so before the ballot.

Matthew Elliot, the campaign director of "No to AV", claimed the "Yes" campaign had a conflict of interest in the referendum.

The Electoral Reform Society is one of two main backers of the "Yes" campaign, donating more than £1 million to the cause. The ERS receives a similar sum in an annual dividend from its commercial subsidiary, Electoral Reform Services Ltd.

Mr Elliott argued that a switch to AV will make the introduction of electronic voting machines more likely and that as the UK's market leader in election management software, the ERS's commercial operation would be ideally placed to benefit.

Electronic voting?

Image caption,
Matthew Elliott, director of the No to AV campaign claims ERS has a financial interest in a Yes vote

"The reason we bring this up is because with the other preferential voting systems in the UK, be it London's mayoral elections or certain Scottish local government elections, which use e-counting, those vote counting machines are supplied by Electoral Reform Services and DRS [Data Services Ltd]," he said.

"So we're saying the biggest donor to the Yes campaign, Election Reform Services, is actually set to make a lot of money out of this change in the system if AV goes through."

However, John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, said it is by no means certain that the introduction of AV will lead to votes in UK general elections being counted electronically.

On the attack

"Even though all of the [Scottish local government] elections were counted electronically in 2007, many, although not all, local authorities have decided to count the AV by hand since. So it's certainly debatable both whether we need electronic counting machines for AV, and whether the ERS necessarily has a commercial interest in the switch."

Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society and head of the Yes campaign, insisted the ERS takes no day to day role in the activities of its subsidiary. "They don't make decisions for us, and we don't for them," she said.

"The No campaign have invented a price tag in place of any arguments about the AV. The only equipment the AV would require is a pencil, so Electoral Reform Services does not stand to gain a penny."

From claiming that a switch to AV will cost Britain £250m, to posters featuring the slogan "Say No to President Clegg", "No to AV" has not been afraid to go on the attack in the campaign.

But "Yes to fairer votes" have not been above the fray either.

Donor transparency

The "Yes" side revealed their full list of donors - including the Electoral Reform Society and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust - last month. However, despite pledging to publish a full list of their backers, the "No" side had yet to follow suit at the time of writing.

In an interview with the BBC, Ms Ghose criticized the "No" campaign's lack of transparency. "I am waiting with bated breath to hear where their money is coming from, because they haven't had the courtesy to tell the British public," she said.

"It does make me feel a bit suspicious when they don't want to disclose their donations, when we have."

The Report has discovered the identity of one "No" backer - Conservative peer, Lord Edmiston.

The West Midlands-based motor trade entrepreneur and philanthropist, told the programme he had donated "a significant sum".

Mr Elliott, who has taken a sabbatical from the pressure group the Taxpayers' Alliance to run the No campaign, said he would reveal his donors "very shortly".

The Report will be broadcast on Thursday 7th April at 2000 BST on BBC Radio 4. You can listen again via the iPlayer or download the podcast.

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