Why the odds have shifted against electoral reform

Four reasons why the No campaign is now likely to win next year’s referendum.

Vernon Bogdanor, a frequent contributor to the NS, delivers a paean of praise to the Alternative Vote in today's Financial Times. AV, he writes, "opens the door to a new political world in which coalitions become the norm, and single-party majority government a distant memory".

One should qualify Bogdanor's excitement by noting that, in some circumstances, AV can produce even more distorted outcomes than first-past-the-post. For instance, the Jenkins commission found that if the 1997 election had been held under AV, Labour's majority would have ballooned from 179 to 245, with the Tories reduced to a rump of 96 seats. So introducing AV would by no means consign single-party government to the dustbin of history.

As things stand, however, it looks like we won't get a chance to find out. The odds have shifted significantly against electoral reform in recent weeks. Here are four reasons why.

1. Public support for AV has plummeted

Three months ago, a ComRes poll showed that AV enjoyed a healthy, 27-point lead over first-past-the-post, but the most recent YouGov poll suggests this has shrivelled to just 5 points. The referendum may not be until May (or September, if the Tory rebels and Labour succeed in delaying it), but this is not encouraging for the Yes campaign.

In addition, the psephologist Rob Hayward recently told the FT's Jim Pickard that currently half of Conservative voters polled by YouGov are in favour of AV. That is likely to change once leading Tory politicians swing behind FPTP.

2. Labour's decision to oppose the Electoral Reform Bill

Labour's decision to oppose the Electoral Reform Bill over the coalition's proposed boundary changes caught the Lib Dems off guard. The bill is still likely to squeak through, but the row over Cameron's alleged gerrymandering has, as David Miliband put it recently, "poisoned" the debate.

If Labour does campaign in favour of AV (and some in the shadow cabinet are agnostic on the question) it is likely to be only half-heartedly. As well as those in the party who have never supported electoral reform (the Prescott tendency), a significant number of MPs would now like to see AV rejected, in the hope that the coalition will fall.

3. Voters are disillusioned with coalition government

Today's Independent/ComRes poll found that only 36 per cent agree with the statement "Britain is better off with a coalition government than it would have been if either the Conservatives or Labour had won the election outright", compared to 45 per cent two months ago.

As I've explained above, AV doesn't always lead to coalition governments but, based on current voting intentions and second preferences, it would. We can expect this to be a key weapon in the No camp's arsenal.

4. The No campaign is better organised and better funded

The No campaign already has an experienced team in place, including the Australian pollster Lynton Crosby (who masterminded Boris Johnson's election), two Tory MPs, Bernard Jenkin and George Eustice, as well as James Frayne, former campaign director of the Taxpayers' Alliance, who led the successful referendum campaign against a north-east regional assembly.

As today's Financial Times notes, the No camp can also count on backing from wealthy City donors fearful that AV would lead to a succession of hung parliaments. The Yes camp has neither the organisational nor the financial might to compete with this.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.