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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

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.