The biggest problem for the pro-AV campaign

Even its own supporters aren’t keen on it.

I've noted before that the biggest problem for the pro-AV campaign is that even its own supporters aren't keen on the system. Ben Bradshaw, for instance, who is now leading a Labour campaign for AV, told the New Statesman last year:

The reason I've never supported AV is that it would have given us an even bigger majority in 1997, and it would have given the Tories an even bigger majority in 1983, and probably 1987 as well.

Now, Alan Johnson, usually one of Labour's strongest supporters of electoral reform, has admitted that he's struggling to get excited about next May's referendum. In an interview with Fabian Review, he said:

I'll support AV, but my heart won't be in it in the same way as if it was the proper thing.

It's difficult to find anyone who's passionate about the system that Nick Clegg memorably described as a "miserable little compromise". At best, the Alternative Vote attracts lukewarm support from those who long for a genuinely proportional voting method. The Electoral Reform Society, for instance, which is bankrolling the Yes campaign, issued a press release just hours before the coalition was formed, pointing out that "AV would prove a very modest reform . . . Significant regional imbalances would remain between main parties."

The referendum won't be won or lost at Westminster, but it must be dispiriting for the Yes camp that so few politicians are prepared to lend it their wholehearted support.

A letter signed by 20 new Labour and Conservative MPs including Nick Boles, Tristram Hunt and Zac Goldsmith today rejects AV on the grounds that it is not a "priority" for the public. It's a hackneyed argument, but it's true that public support for reform has plummeted in recent months.

If the Yes camp is to stand a chance of winning the referendum, it will need to overcome public apathy. With this in mind, it might want to begin with its own supporters.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.