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.

Special subscription offer: Get 12 issues for £12 plus a free copy of Andy Beckett's "When the Lights Went Out".

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.