Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Campaigning for AV will become a test of Ed Miliband's leadership

Many congratulations to Ed Miliband and his partner Justine on the birth of their second son. It is also good to see that Ed Miliband will be taking paternity leave, with Harriet Harman again as acting leader for a fortnight.

These are the happiest of reasons why Labour's leader will have more important things to focus on than Labour's position on electoral reform.

But he should turn his attention to that issue when he returns in a couple of weeks time - and head off the suggestion made by Andy Burnham in Friday's Guardian that the Labour party will steer clear of playing much or any part in campaigning in the first UK-wide referendum campaign for 36 years.

The referendum should have been held on its own day, when the yes and no campaigns could have argued it out. Our sole priority has to be, and will be, winning in Scotland, and Wales, and doing well in the local elections.

"It would be a recipe for chaos and confusion if Labour candidates were also supporting AV in their literature. The election and referendum campaigns have to be separate and distinct.

Polling suggests that the views of Labour voters are likely to be decisive in the referendum, since they appear to be both most evenly divided and most volatile, as Ed Wallis' piece on the politics of the yes campaign set out in the Fabian Review.

So John Rentoul heralded Burnham's intervention this weekend with an Independent on Sunday obituary notice for electoral reform.

But rumours of the death of the fairer votes campaign may be exaggerated, or at least premature, since the question of whether Labour does sit on its hands can not be considered closed yet.

Will Straw on Left Foot Forward offers a persuasive response to the Burnham interview with his five reasons why Labour should campaign on AV.

There are good, non-partisan arguments for the Alternative Vote as a better voting system, and this blog has set them out several times. But let us (for a moment at least) accept that Labour's position on the issue should be determined by Machiavellian calculation about party tactics. There are three reasons why the Burnham position seems to me to risk falling into the cardinal Machiavellian sin of getting the low political calculations wrong.

Firstly, the most likely impact of adopting the "no campaign" position would probably be to undermine the leadership of Ed Miliband.

A significant part of the Labour leader's "next generation" pitch involves arguing that Labour will be on the side of change and reform to our "broken politics". That is why he used his first party conference speech as leader to argue that the referendum mattered - and that he would be supporting AV.

Let's be honest, politics isn't working.

People have lost faith in politicians and politics.

And trust is gone.

Politics is broken.

Its practice, its reputation and its institutions.

I'm in it and even I sometimes find it depressing.

This generation has a chance - and a huge responsibility - to change our politics. We must seize it and meet the challenge.

So we need to reform our House of Commons and I support changing our voting system and will vote Yes in the referendum on AV

The news programmes have the clips. So the idea that refusing to campaign is the way to avoid "a distraction" may well prove entirely the opposite of the truth if Labour were to try it. Labour's lack of engagement or involvement will itself become the main way in which the party figures in media coverage of the referendum question, and an inability to give a straight answer could undermine the party in May's other election.

The leader's public reputation and ability to engage a broad alliance of support for Labour is a crucial element of the party's electoral strategy, and it would be very bad news to undermine it.

There will of course be some different views in the party on AV - as there are to some extent on almost every issue. But I can see little convincing case for an "agreement to differ" to extend to the party's frontbench as well as to backbenchers. (There are no prominent opponents of AV elected to the Shadow Cabinet. For example, Ed Balls has favoured AV since 2007. Andy Burnham has wavered on the issue, but his position in the leadership election remained).


Secondly, there is every chance that the future of British politics involves more coalitions than in the past.

The long-term electoral maths behind that proposition is set out by John Curtice in his appendix to 'The British General Election of 2010'. This is quite probably the case whether or not we shift to AV or stick with first-past-the-post.

The scale of the cultural challenge this presents to the Labour Party is greater than is commonly realised. Labour was shockingly under-prepared for a hung Parliament last May, even though that was realistically the best possible outcome for the party. The party has often been instinctively suspicious to cross-party cooperation. (The Tories have been part of every peacetime British coalition government for 150 years; Labour never). Undoubtedly, the current Coalition strengthens these instincts.


Thirdly, the irony is that those Labour voices who want to avoid Coalition politics are going to need a more pluralist Labour party too.

Those in the Labour Party who are instinctively uncomfortable with the idea of Coalition politics need to plot a path to a Labour overall majority, if the party is ever to govern without needing to cooperate with other parties.

Starting from 29%, this has to involve taking votes from both of the governing parties, as well as appealing to new cohorts. The paradox is that even this 'tribal' ambition would almost certainly require greater attention to a more pluralist politics too.

There could surely be no Labour majority without winning votes back from both the Conservatives and the LibDems. Indeed, the Tory share of the vote in 2010 was only 5.5% higher than that of 1997 while the LibDems' share rose by just over 6%.

The Conservatives are currently doing well in the polls at the start of the Parliament. Labour will have to compete particularly with a credible argument for an economic alternative, as well as on other issues which were important in voters switching from red to blue.

At the same time, the current poll weakness of the Liberal Democrats (and the broader dilemma of participating in a centre-right Coalition with a mainly centre-left voter base) undoubtedly offers an important opportunity to Labour to recapture voters which went LibDem in 2005 and 2010, particularly following the LibDem volte face on tuition fees.

Political reform is not the only issue here - civil liberties, the environment, education, international issues and several others may well be important. LibDem activists immediately identified Ed Miliband's support for electoral reform and other progressive causes as significant. Initial polling suggested LibDem voters warmed to Ed Miliband's conference speech.

Beyond these issues, a key test may well be the perception of whether or not Labour's claims to have changed stand up. If Labour is thought to have acted in bad faith on electoral reform - by putting political tactics above principles, so not engaging with the referendum which Labour itself proposed in its last manifesto - it is likely to deter some voters who may otherwise have considered switching to Labour.

1 comment:

giroscoper said...

I think the best bet for Labour here is for Ed Miliband to do what Harold Wilson did in the 1975 Common Market Referendum - allow Labour MPs, party members and shadow cabinet ministers to campaign for or against, or not at all, depending on their personal preferences.

I don't think the AV vote would be winnable even if Labour were to campaign for it. The Tories are mostly completely opposed as are the media. Current opinion polls have the 'no' campaign considerably ahead.

Furthermore, citing that well-known political commentator Nick Clegg, I would describe AV as a "miserable compromise". It's not proportional representation, which the Lib Dems (and the Liberal Party before them) have backed for decades. I don't think Labour should have put the idea of an AV referendum in its 2010 manifesto.

I will vote yes for AV, but only really because the Tories are against it.