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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.