Johnson fires another warning shot at Miliband

Shadow chancellor calls for major reform of the Labour leadership voting system.

Having elected Ed Miliband as leader less than two months ago, now may seem an odd time for Labour to re-open the debate over its arcane voting system. But that's what the increasingly outspoken Alan Johnson has done. He tells the Times (£): "I would like to see a full one-member one-vote system for leadership contests. At the moment it can be one-member four votes and that's wrong."

Had Johnson's man won (he was a key supporter of David Miliband), one suspects that he may not be so preoccupied with the rule book. But, regardless of his political motives, he makes a convincing argument. As I've pointed out before, the party's tripartite electoral college (divided between MPs/MEPs, party members, and affiliated trade unions and socialist societies) means that some votes are worth significantly more than others. The vote of one MP is worth the votes of 608 party members and 12,915 affiliated members. The vote of one party member is worth the votes of 21 affiliated members. The electoral college system puts Labour out of step with the Tories and the Lib Dems, both of whom elect leaders using a one-member-one-vote system. It would be a mistake for Labour to adopt this system in its purest form; it is both just and necessary for affiliated trade unions, as the founders of the party, to have a say over the leadership. But the extraordinary power held by the PLP can no longer be justified.

There's also no reason to think that Miliband wouldn't be sympathetic to reform. Liam Byrne, who is overseeing Labour's policy review, says that he now expects the party's leadership rules to be "on the table" in discussions. But what's troubling for Labour's leader is that some of those calling for the system to be reformed are, in effect, declaring his election illegitimate. Simmering resentment at the fact that Miliband wasn't the choice of party members and MPs has burst into the open. Alan Milburn and Margaret Hodge both call for the party to deprieve the unions of a say in the leadership election, without whom, of course, Miliband would not have won. Meanwhile, David Blunkett and Charles Clarke issue some of the strongest criticisms we've heard of the Labour leader.

"The problem for Ed is that he got dipped in the Gordon paint pot," says Blunkett. Clarke comments: "Ed Miliband is back to the comfort zone. I don't think he's 'Red Ed' particularly but he hasn't so far shown that he's into challenge." Of the above, Clarke and Milburn are, of course, no longer MPs. But the fear for Team Miliband is that they speak for a significant Blairite constituency in the party. As Dan Hodges reports in this week's magazine (out today), sections of the party remain in a state of unease and unrest following Miliband's repudiation of New Labour.

One shouldn't exaggerate the dissent we're beginning to hear. After all, by historical standards, the Labour Party remains remarkably united. But it looks like Miliband will have some firefighting to do when he returns to Westminster.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left