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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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