Confusion, caricature, half-truths: tactics that rattled Yes campaign

Even before polling booths closed last night, recriminations began over how electoral reformers appeared to have blown a once-in-a-generation chance to change the voting system.

At the start of the year, the campaign in favour of the alternative vote (AV) seemed to be heading for a comfortable victory as it consistently enjoyed a double-digit lead over supporters of first past the post. That changed dramatically in the last two months thanks to a No campaign that traded on half-truths and brutally effective caricature of the other side's arguments.

Largely bankrolled by Conservative donors and heavily staffed by Tory figures, it was given a cross-party veneer by the presence of several big beasts from previous Labour governments. They pooled their resources to fight a combative campaign to defend the system that had served their parties so well over the last century. They also seemed to have outspent their rivals in leafleting and publicity campaigns.

The No side received a critical boost when David Cameron, facing the threat of insurrection from the Tory Right if he presided over the demise of first past the post, became heavily involved in galvanising Conservative votes.

Supporters of AV – determined to run a grassroots campaign without politicians in leading roles – found it difficult to respond to the aggressive tactics and to make a counter-appeal on tribal grounds to progressive- minded voters. As one electoral reformer put it: "They so wanted to do the new politics that they forgot how effective the old politics could be."

They struggled to respond to the spurious claim that introducing AV would cost the country £250m, more than half of which was the price of buying electronic counting machines. No campaigner David Blunkett confessed yesterday that the figure had been "made up", but the damage was already done in hard-hitting advertisements suggesting the money could be used to save babies' or soldiers' lives.

"They were slow off the mark in knocking down some of the most egregious claims by the No campaign," one sympathiser complained.

With hindsight, the choice of Eddie Izzard – rather than the political "dinosaurs" on the other side – to front the Yes campaign was well-intentioned but naïve. A poll yesterday disclosed that only one in four of the public knew that the comedian was backing AV.

About two months ago, when Mr Cameron and other Tory Cabinet ministers weighed into the battle, the Yes campaign failed to return comparable fire. One Lib Dem source said: "We were like the Polish cavalry trying to charge the Russian tanks when Cameron and Osborne became involved. We weren't able to respond."

Some of the problem was Nick Clegg's unpopularity, making it hard for him to play a prominent role in the Yes campaign. The Labour leader Ed Miliband, a supporter of AV, described the Deputy Prime Minister as a "massive hindrance" and refused to share a platform with him.

Lib Dem sources yesterday accused Mr Miliband of being hamstrung in campaigning by the split in Labour opinion over the merits of electoral reform. One said: "We needed Miliband to deliver the Labour vote. That he failed to is down to his weak leadership."

The left-wing blogger Sunny Hundal claimed Mr Miliband and fellow Labour AV supporters "sat on the fence for too long". He said: "Even now, most Labour voters I meet on the doorstep don't know where the Labour leadership stand nor see it as a way to stick up two fingers at Cameron."

A Labour source fiercely denied the accusation, arguing that Mr Miliband "threw himself" into the campaign, adding: "We worked hard at getting the Yes argument up and running early."

The No team also succeeded in putting across simple, clear messages that distorted the case against AV but appeared to resonate with the voters. Time and again they repeated the claim that AV would give extra influence to the British National Party (ignoring Nick Griffin's support for first past the post) or that it was barely used around the world. They allowed the impression to take root that AV was complex and confusing, even though it only requires voters to rank their preferred candidates in order.

The Yes camp fought the campaign on their opponents' terms, finding it difficult to hone a convincing and memorable argument for switching to AV. "We should have tried to focus unerringly on first past the post being unfit for purpose, but that AV would retain its best features," said one supporter. "But the Yes campaign was confronted by the muscle of the British political Right, their press supporters and their donors."

The prospects for electoral reform

If more than 80 per cent of those who cast a ballot in the referendum vote No:

The argument for electoral reform is lost for a generation. The No lobby will say that the people have spoken decisively and it will be hard for the Yes lobby to disagree with this.

Between 60 and 80 per cent of participants in the referendum vote No:

Still bad but it slightly depends on the distribution of votes. If Scotland and Wales vote Yes, then reform campaigners could claim that those with a more proportional system like it.

Between 50 and 60 per cent vote No:

After the polling of the past few days, this would be a surprisingly close margin of defeat for the Yes campaigners. Small comfort, but the fight for a really proportional system would go on. If the margin of defeat is less than 5 per cent, then the pressure for Labour to consider some sort of electoral reform in its next manifesto could be strong.