The Labour split on AV deepens

Shadow cabinet minister John Healey leads the charge against electoral reform.

The electoral reform debate is stuttering into life. Today sees the official launch of both the Labour Yes campaign and Labour No campaigns. It's a critical moment, not least because Labour votes will determine the result of the referendum. The most recent YouGov poll on the subject showed that while Lib Dem voters are overwhelmingly in favour of reform (69:15) and the Tories are largely opposed (48:29), Labour voters are split 42:33 in favour of AV.

With this in mind, Ed Miliband will appeal to his party's activists not to turn the plebiscite into a referendum on Nick Clegg. He will say: "We can't reduce the second referendum in British political history to a verdict on one man . . . the change to the alternative vote deserves our support because it is fairer and because it encourages a better politics."

He will add that AV "should be the beginning of the journey, not the end", although this is thought to reflect his support for a fully elected second chamber rather than a late conversion to proportional representation.

Meanwhile, in an op-ed piece for the Independent, John Healey, one of three shadow cabinet members who oppose reform (the others are Caroline Flint and Mary Creagh) manages to cite just above every misleading argument against AV. He repeats the lazy claim that the system has been "rejected the world over" (bar Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea).

In fact, as Healey should know, AV is the method used for Labour and Lib Dem leadership elections, for many US mayoral and district elections, for most student union elections and for internal elections in numerous businesses and trade unions.

The piece is starkly headlined "Vote refom would benefit only BNP, Ukip and Lib Dems" (ie, do you really want to give the fascists a helping hand?), a claim that, in the case of the BNP, has been exposed repeatedly as shameless scaremongering.

As Peter Kellner has written, "AV is the best system for keeping the BNP at bay. The party would seldom, if ever, win any contest under AV." A system that forces parties to attract second-preference votes would lock out Nick Griffin's mob. It is for this reason that the BNP itself is calling for a No vote.

Whether Miliband's modest call for reform is enough to offset such demagoguery remains to be seen.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war