A memo, from Mehdi to George: Dear Chancellor, your pants are on fire

Isn't it time for George Osborne to apologise for his mendacity during the AV campaign?

There were two depressing aspects to the electoral reform referendum in May. First, of course, there was the result: it was a crushing defeat for the Yes2AV campaign and all of us who support progressive, pluralist politics. Second, there was the US-style negative campaigning and gutter politics engaged in by the No to AV campaign and its parliamentary and media outriders. The No campaign was built on fear, hysteria and lies -- and it worked. The British public rejected a system that would have put more power in the hands of voters and reduced, in a stroke, the number of "safe seats" across the UK.

And here's the thing: the lies were brazen. The former home secretary and high-profile No to AV supporter David Blunkett admitted, on the eve of the vote, that anti-AV claims were "made up". No to AV, for example, pulled the figure "£250m" out of thin air and then argued that this would be the cost of introducing AV in the UK. One anti-AV poster -- proudly conceived by the Staggers guest blogger Dan Hodges -- claimed that the adoption of AV would automatically reduce the number of cardiac facilities available to premature babies. It was nasty stuff.

But to witness the Chancellor of the Exchequer, one of the most senior politicians in the land, getting down and dirty in the gutter on behalf of the anti-AV campaign was deeply disturbing. On 12 April, the Daily Mail reported Osborne as saying:

What really stinks is . . . one of the ways the Yes campaign is funded. The Electoral Reform Society, which is actually running some of the referendum ballots, and is being paid to do that by the taxpayer, stands to benefit if AV comes in . . . that organisation, the Electoral Reform Society -- part of it is a company [Electoral Reform Services Ltd] that makes money -- is funding the Yes campaign.

That stinks, frankly, and is exactly the sort of dodgy, behind-the-scenes shenanigans that people don't like about politics. The No campaign has asked for it to be investigated by the Electoral Commission and certainly I think there are some very, very serious questions that have to be answered.

But, on Wednesday, the Guardian's Roy Greenslade noted on his media blog that the Press Complaints Commission's latest list of resolved complaints includes two items on how Electoral Reform Services (ERSL) had complained about articles in both the Daily Mail and the Sun -- both of which carried the Chancellor's claims -- that they said contained inaccuracies. The Mail and the Sun, "to resolve the matter", agreed to publish a letter from the organisation in print and online (at the foot of the original articles).

The ERS letter pointed out:

Mr Osborne was wrong: the introduction of AV would not have required any additional voting machines and even if it had, ERSL would have gained no financial benefit because it doesn't manufacture or supply such machines.

Our services to local authorities are limited to the printing and mailing of ballot material and the provision of software for the management of electoral registers.

The Mail and the Sun have been forced to correct their misleading reports. The question is: isn't it time Mr Osborne is asked to apologise for or, at least, clarify his own dishonest claims?

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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.