North East Devolution Referendum 2004: The First Modern Election

Milo Barnett discusses the formation of campaigning trends in the North East Devolution Referendum and how they have become established tools over the last 16 years.


The North East Devolution Referendum 2004 is not one that left a lasting legacy on the public psyche.  However this regional vote can be seen as the first contemporary election, with the same messaging and targeting we would go on to see in a wide a range of votes from the AV Referendum, Scottish Referendum, Brexit, and of course the 2019 General Election. In the Devolution Referendum, the North East decisively rejected the proposals, with the No side getting 78% of the vote. But before the campaign, the Yes side had been predicted to win decisively.

The 2004 vote was the first major electoral defeat for the Blair government. Of course, there had been setbacks and losses at both European and local level, but this was a major policy goal that was decisively rejected in Labour’s strongest region - where Blair and many prominent Labour politicians held seats.

The North East is the family home of Dominic Cummings, and the County Durham native was a key figure in the North East Says No (Nesno) campaign. In his own words “we won the 2004 referendum after starting 60-40 behind with no money, no digital campaign, no ground campaign, every force in the North East hostile, and with the campaign consisting of not much more than my girlfriend, dad, uncle and literally a handful of people. I think we spent ~£50-100k. We won 80-20.” So how was this achieved?

The original landscape around the Nesno campaign was naturally more pro “Yes”. This was a result of both the strength of Labour in the region and media preference. So Neso had to have two things, first, a way of attracting attention, and secondly a means of allying that attention to a clear narrative. In Nesno, Cummings honed his campaign skills and managed to identify a winning strategy.  To convert a public that is in the other camp but bound to a vague rationale, you need to present them with a white elephant.

“Yes” had gone with a “Cool Britannia” approach, using local celebrities like Gazza to endorse its message, and a somewhat extraneous manifesto promising, for example, more rights for artists. Nesno, by contrast, burned £1m of fake £50 notes, and created a giant white elephant balloon, touring it around the region. The Nesno messaging was simple: instead of a positive future for the North East, they focused on negative cost, politicians, and the lack of powers being proposed.

The core idea that the status quo has failed to spend enough money on healthcare, and that any available cash should go to nurses and the NHS, anchored the AV referendum, Brexit and even the Scotland Yes campaign. It successfully recast the establishment position in the negative,  whether this proposed creating a new form of devolution or indeed keeping the union together. It implied that it is actually bad for essential and popular government services (e.g. nurses) and that this was supported in a sinister manner by the nebulous “other” - the metropolitan Whitehall establishment.

Experience would suggest that without a Cummings-type mantra and an “other” to demonise, you are doomed to lose or run it close. Contrast Cameron 2010, with Cameron 2015, with the latter focusing on Miliband being in the pocket of the SNP. This was far more effective than trying to run in 2010 as Blair 2.0. There is a clear ideological heritage for Nesno’s White Elephant and Leave’s Bus with its promises of healthcare spending and taking back control.

There are of course other factors for the loss of the Yes vote, including the post-Iraq blues,  as well as the fact that successful elements of devolution (such as no tuition fees and prescription fees) had yet to reach the English consciousness. It was probably the worst time to try and create a federal Britain. Nevertheless, there are underlying lessons.

Today the Referendum is all but forgotten, the only rare history of the campaign written by William Norton, a Nesno, and later Vote Leave agent, retailing on Amazon for over £3,000. Yet its legacy lives on in the populist campaigning it proved, in the career of Dominic Cummings, and even in the failure to create a truly federal Britain. In the future, looking to create new and positive outcomes, and strong voter engagement, we must not let ourselves fall into the same bear traps.

Milo Barnett is the current Young Fabians Health Chair. He is from the North East and has strong interest in Health, Housing, Education and Devolution.

He tweets at @Milo_Barnett

Do you like this post?