Mixed metaphors in the AV race

Is AV a horse race or a football match? Or is it just whatever the plebs can understand?

What if a general election were a horse race? No, too complicated. Fences. Horses and jockeys. Difficult to understand. I'll try again. What if a general election were a 100-metre race? Mmm, no, too tricky. Scope for misunderstandings. Lanes cause problems. No, that won't do. That won't do at all. Starting pistols? Photo finishes? All far too hard to understand. Give me a minute.

OK, let's say a general election is just like a cricket match. And the ball is your vote, and the stumps are the winning margin, and you bowl your vote at the winning margin, and . . . no. No, no, no. This isn't helping at all.

I'll try again. Nice and simple. Because you're stupid. Because you're too thick to get the idea of voting, and you need it turned into something that you can understand, because you hate the idea of politics and everything that goes with it; and besides, you don't have the time to think about facts, or problems, or complexity, or nuance – you're just a tot in a crib, waiting for Daddy to tell you a story. You don't want anything other than a happy ending.

Let's face it, you're thick. You're dumb. You're barely more than a dribbling infant slamming its tiny hands into a bowl of goo because you like the way it splatters. That's the level we're trying to pitch this at. Because that's all you're capable of getting. Voting is something that you're afraid of because you're a dummy, and unless we talk to you about it bright colours AND CAPITAL LETTERS and smiley faces, you're not going to get your oh-so-pretty little heads around it, are you?

OK. So. Right. Imagine you're at a football match, right, and the team you wanted to win didn't win because someone else wanted the other team to win, even though they actually wanted your team to win. Yes . . .? No. No, we really aren't making any headway.

OK, let's see if we can try and nudge you in the right direction another way. What if someone you liked thought about voting in a particular way; what would you think then? Look, here's someone famous, them off from off of the television. What do you think now? They look pretty bright, don't they, and they got famous for writing, or being funny, or running around and jumping over hurdles, or whatever it is; and look, they think this way. Or, if that won't convince you, look at these bad people, people you don't like. They're bad people, and they think this way. Now what do you think?

Forget about all those thoughts about things being slightly more complicated than they might at first appear. Try to forget, if you can. It's a miracle you don't burn yourself on the toaster every morning, really, but there it is; you've made it through life this far without too many problems, and so you get given a vote, to do with as you wish. It's just that, well, you don't want to do all that boring stuff about democracy, and representation, or the comparable benefits of different voting systems, do you? You don't want to think about all that. You've got better things to do.

So let's just talk about things in a simplistic, infantile way that you can comprehend, even in your tiny squashy noggin, because you're frankly not bright enough to want to know about anything that's slightly more difficult to grasp than a slap in the face with a gardening glove. Just you leave it to us to tell you how to do it. And there you are! Democracy will be improved unimaginably, just by you putting your vote here. Or there. Wherever we've told you to put it. Because it's the right thing for YOU.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses