Yes campaign must sell treaty as a good thing in itself


The quality of debate in this referendum is greatly improved, but the sides must fight to maintain momentum, writes NOEL WHELAN

WE HAVE reached the end of the first quarter of the actual campaigning period for the second Lisbon referendum, offering a useful moment to assess the state of play.

Last weekend we got our first look at the scoreboard with publication in this newspaper of the TNS/mrbi opinion poll showing the Yes vote at 46, No at 29 and Don’t Knows at 25 per cent. When the latter are excluded, the score is Yes 61 per cent as against 39 per cent No. While this represented a fall in the Yes vote on that measured in late May, the questions were not directly comparable.

We will get another look at the scoreboard tomorrow when the Sunday Business Post publishes the latest in its series of Red C Polls. Six such Red C polls were published between January and May and, in each, those polled were asked the same direct question: “How will you vote in the Lisbon Treaty referendum to be held later this year?” Over these six polls the Yes percentage fluctuated only slightly between 57 and 59 per cent, the No percentage between 25 and 28 per cent, and the Don’t Knows between 14 and 17 per cent.

With Don’t Knows excluded, the average Yes was 69 per cent while the average No was 31 per cent. There has been no Red C poll since May, so tomorrow’s poll will be watched with particular interest.

The quality of the debate in this referendum is greatly improved, in part because it is the second time around and because the Referendum Commission has been more effective at clarifying the content of the treaty and dispelling some of the myths. The leaflet delivered to households and the guide are more impressive. Unfortunately, the newspaper and television advertising is less effective. It is too busy, with too many different voices depicting ordinary people.

Clutter in the commission’s advertising has been more than compensated for by the performance of its chairman Judge Frank Clarke on unpaid media. His readiness to put himself about on the airways to give authoritative and accessible answers to voters’ questions has enhanced the commission’s role in this campaign.

On paper, the Yes team is stronger this year because of additional high-profile civil society groups, while the No side is weakened by the absence, thus far, of Declan Ganley and Libertas. Much of the effort of the newer Yes groups appears, however, to be concentrated on the media profile of their campaign rather than on the streets and doorsteps – on the “air war” rather than on the “ground war”.

Of course, referendum campaigns are shaped more by media coverage and debate than even general elections now are, but in this particular contest, large-scale door-to-door contact will be necessary to turn around the result. The political parties are likely to be stronger on the ground than in the previous referendum, but so too are the No campaigners. Anecdotal evidence from politicians around the country suggests, for example, that Cóir has already conducted intensive leaflet dropping and canvassing in some areas. Posters are important in referendum campaigns, especially in the first weeks. If done properly, postering not only raises the profile of a campaigning group but can also be the most effective way of communicating a key message.

To date, Cóir has won the postering wars. Whatever about their accuracy, their claims have had more impact because they are more pointed and made on posters which use more effective outdoor colouring and eye-catching photographs. By comparison, the Yes posters are either plain text or depict slidefile type photos of supposed ordinary citizens. This time around, however, most political parties deserve credit for avoiding using shots of politicians and instead focusing on what is actually the key message in this campaign, namely, the implications of the referendum choice for jobs and the economy.

The Yes side is also more effective at rebuttal. They are determined to let no misrepresentations pass. My inbox is almost clogged with e-mails from campaigning or information organisations challenging what they see as misleading statements from the No side, or correcting a “lie of the day”.

The decision of UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, to enter the campaign here is also a boost to the Yes side, not least because it enables them to depict the No campaign as a collection of extreme voices from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

One risk for the Yes campaign is that in its focus on countering the No arguments or emphasising the protocols and other gains since the last referendum, they are failing to get their own primary arguments across.

The portion of the electorate to be switched to change the outcome may be relatively small, but momentum is still very important. It is hard to gain momentum when focused on defensive work only. Scoring a hit against Joe Higgins because of a mistake he made in a website may damage him for a news cycle and deliver a morale boost to Yes campaigners, but it doesn’t actually do much to shift voters.

If they are to win this referendum, the Yes campaign must firstly proactively sell the Lisbon Treaty as a good thing in itself. Then they will have to emphasise that a second No vote would have significant economic and political consequences for Ireland. They should not be intimidated by suggestions of scare-mongering. This is a campaign in which being more blunt will be more effective.

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