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Laurie Penny: put the vendetta aside and vote Yes to AV

Petty revenge politics does nothing but reduce us to the level of Westminster.

The Alternative Vote is nobody's first preference. A mitigated solution to our wheezing, elitist first-past-the-post system, the referendum on AV has nonetheless drawn the catty claws of Westminster at its very worst. As the big day approaches, the Yes and No campaigns smear, counter-smear and tear chunks out of each other like schoolgirls bickering over a strip of stickers. Voters watch them squabble like solemn parents: we're not angry, we're just very disappointed.


The spiteful infantilism of the No campaign, whose posters have featured doctored statistics and dying babies, is bad enough without having to feel frustrated with the Yes campaign for rising to it. Should we vote No to dead babies or Yes to glib celebrity platitudes? The choice is hardly inspiring.

Ironically, it is precisely this sort of situation -- the Westminster elite and vested interests carping and bitching at each other while millions of voters prepare for their lives to get a lot worse extremely quickly -- that AV is supposed to challenge.

As the two camps sling buckets of privately-funded muck at each other in the hope that some of it will stick, one comes inevitably to the very question that has inspired electoral-reform campaigners for generations: shouldn't our politics be better than this?

The No campaign in particular seems determined to reduce this deep, principled issue to one of cost-effectiveness and scaremongering. Summoning the spectre of the British National Party might be more convincing had the Conservative Prime Minister not just made a speech on immigration that played directly to the far right. If the only way local and parliamentary politicians can stop the BNP is not by challenging their racist dogma and offering working-class communities a real alternative, but by rigging the electoral system against them, there is something chillingly amiss in Westminster.

Faced with opposing campaigns that remind us how cheapened and directionless our politics have become, it is hard to muster a shrug of indifference to the upcoming referendum, let alone the shrill, orgasmic 'Yes!' that some campaigners would like us to summon.. This is a great shame, because the truth is that electoral reform matters. If it did not matter, Conservative donors would not be pouring money into the counter-campaign.

The prospect of AV frightens professional politicians from all the main parties who have become used to a culture of safe seats and easy privilegewhere the votes of the majority of their constituents can be ignored. A Yes vote would be a shot across the bows for the political elite, our one chance in a generation to toss a rock into the stagnant pool of parliamentary privilege.

The trouble is that it feels madly insufficient, like being told to eat more vegetables when you have tertiary cancer. There is too much desperation in Britain today for many voters to believe that creeping democratic change will deliver the fair and democratic settlement Britain has craved forgenerations.

Political integrity

Electoral reform is the honest heart of liberal politics. Unfortunately, liberal politics has let us all down. Immediately after the groundswell of liberal reformism that boosted the Liberal Democrats during the election, a thousand activists marched slowly to Downing Street to hand in a petition for 'Fair Votes'. Six months later, many of the same young people were being baton-charged by police horses in the same thoroughfare. As the country lurches between radicalism and resignation, I've watched a number of activists who once trusted electoral reform to bring progressive change masking up to battle the police in the streets of London. It all feels too little, too late.

The Liberal Democrats have flogged every last scrap of political integrity for this referendum, and the price was painfully high. After watching them hold the towels whilst the Tories squat with intent over education, health-care and what's left of the welfare state, many voters who otherwise support electoral reform would prefer to see the Liberal Democrats humiliated by defeat in their precious referendum. That sentiment is absolutely understandable.

Petty revenge politics, however, does nothing but reduce us to their level -- the level where honest politics are subsumed by splenetic personal vendettas and snide tactical voting. If we are ever going to get the politics we deserve then we, the voters, need to show a maturity that our politicians are currently failing to evince.

The Alternative Vote feels like a compromise, and it is. It's easy to feel torn between the longing for a more honest politics and the desire for revenge. There is time, however, to express such conflicts when we have a voting system that honours real choice. If we ever get second preferences, I'll happily vote for bile, spleen and spite -- but my first preference is for a clear and heartfelt challenge to parliamentary privilege. That's why I'm voting Yes.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories