In what could be a rehearsal for the EU constitution referendum, the Electoral Commission yesterday decided to designate a rank outsider, North East Says No (NESNO), as the official "no" campaign for the North East regional elected assembly campaign.
The shock announcement came as a snub to the better-established The North East No Campaign, run for over two years by Neil Herron of Metric Martyr fame, and flies in the face of any logic.
Herron's campaign had a strong track record, had attracted broad, non-party political support and had a considerable presence in the debate. The winner, NESNO, by contrast, was a last-minute entry in the field, fronted by businessmen sympathetic to the Conservative party and, apart from the backing of UKIP, pledged by John Whittaker MEP over the heads of local members, could demonstrate no broad-based support.
So lacklustre has been the "yes" campaign, however, that it has been widely acknowledged that the only way it could stand a chance of winning the regional referendum was to turn it into a party-political battle between Labour and the Conservatives.
With the help of the Electoral Commission, in what is widely regarded as a "stitch-up", NESNO has succeeded in doing precisely that, and in fact has gone one better in making it a contest between Labour on the one hand, and a Conservative/UKIP alliance on the other – the latter reeling from the news of their chief executive's penchant for park benches.
With the EU constitutional referendum campaign being kicked off by the self-appointed "Vote No" campaign, on a distinctly Tory platform of support for membership of the EU alongside opposition to the constitution, the scene has been set for a similar carve-up, with that referendum being turned into a Labour-Tory contest.
Both the regional and the constitutional battles, however, are bigger than party politics, and far too important to be subsumed into a narrow political framework. "No" campaigners on the EU constitution are going to need to learn from Herron's experience, and be alert to the possibility of their concerns being hijacked.