Electoral reform is not just an “elite” cause

The overwhelming majority of voters now support reform.

The news that Nick Clegg will announce the details of a referendum on the Alternative Vote next week has already prompted a series of clichéd and discredited arguments from anti-reformists in both the Conservatives and Labour.

Here is Andy Burnham, a contender for the Labour leadership, on the subject:

Let's not get obsessed by this issue, because it really is irrelevant. It's a kind of fringe pursuit for Guardian-reading classes.

And here is the Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski:

This is just something that the liberal elite of this country, a very small group, are trying to implement.

This barely qualifies as an argument. That a cause may be supported by the "liberal elite" has no bearing on its rightness or wrongness. Was the campaign against capital punishment irrelevant because it was led by the educated elite?

But in fact, the claim that electoral reform is a "fringe pursuit", were it ever true, has been comprehensively disproved. A recent ComRes poll found that 78 per cent of voters now support replacing first-past-the-post with a system that "reflects more accurately the proportion of votes cast for each party".

There are principled arguments against proportional representation (of which AV is not an example) -- that it would lead to permanent coalition government, for instance -- but the anti-reformist movement does itself no favours by continuing to employ the lazy and tired charge that electoral reform is an "elite" cause.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.