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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What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.