Labour could outflank the Lib Dems on electoral reform

The next Labour leader needs to be bold about PR.

Today's Queen's Speech, outlining the 18-month legislative programme of Britain's first coalition government since the Second World War, is likely to include a promise of a referendum on voting reform as part of the proposed parliamentary reform bill.

Nick Clegg and his Lib Dem colleagues in the coalition cabinet will be spinning the referendum pledge as a great victory for the party. But, of course, the referendum will be on the Alternative Vote (AV), and not on a fully proportional system, which the Liberal Democrats have campaigned for since time immemorial (and to which they were committed in their own manifesto). Plus, their Conservative allies in government are free to campaign against AV during the referendum campaign.

So -- surprise, surprise! -- Nick Clegg has been reaching out to his scorned lover, the Labour Party, as he begins his personal campaign to convince the electorate of the need for electoral reform. Here is the Deputy Prime Minister on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning:

No one should be surprised that, as a Liberal Democrat, I passionately believe that our electoral system at the moment doesn't work and it can be made fairer, so that people's views are more prom-- . . . you know, are better reflected in the House of Commons. That's of course what we'll campaign on. And yes I will be reaching out to people from other parties -- not just the Conservative Party but the Labour Party as well -- saying if you believe in a different kind of politics, when it comes to a referendum, let's all join together to try and argue the case for change.

The Labour Party has two options. Either it can junk its own manifesto commitment to the Alternative Vote, in an act of petulance, and join the Tories in campaigning against change, thereby embarrassing, isolating and "punishing" the Lib Dems for their alliance with the Conservatives. This might be the preferred strategy of an instinctive first-past-the-poster like Ed Balls.

Or it can be much bolder than it has been in the past, ditch its tribalism and conservatism on electoral reform, and (belatedly) push for out-and-out proportional representation, in the form of AV+ (as recommended by Roy Jenkins back in 1998). At a stroke, Labour would seize the constitutional high ground, attract disillusioned Lib Dem voters into the fold, outflank Clegg, Huhne et al, and exacerbate tensions inside the Con-Dem coalition.

This is the view of the former home secretary Alan Johnson (why are you not standing, Alan??), writing in Sunday's Observer:

The new government is committed to a referendum on a new voting system. It will contain two options -- the current first-past-the-post system and the Alternative Vote. It will be the first time in the history of our democracy that its citizens will have a say in how their votes are translated into political power.

What possible argument can there be against adding the recommendation of the Independent Commission on the Voting System, AV+, as a third option? It retains the constituency link, extends voter choice and is broadly proportional.

Johnson adds: "I will certainly be making the case within my own party to submit legislative amendments to that effect."

Brothers Miliband -- are you listening to AJ? Please do so. You, your party and your country have much to gain.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.